The Four Ring Circus

My father was down (way down) with a cold this past Tuesday. He shouldn’t have been driving my mother and me back from work. The slightest agitation from, say, laughter, was enough to put him in a debilitating coughing spell.

I remember when my father was sidelined with back spasms, and the slightest laughter would send him into paroxysms of pain. Well, I became a regular court jester the moment I figured that out. You cannot give a son that much power over his father and not expect him to use it.

So, we were driving back from work and listening to Chretien speak at the Gomery Inquiry Tuesday. It was then that I realized how much I miss him. With him has vanished one of the last vestiges of the fine leadership that gave us the powerbrokers of Trudeau, Stanfield and Douglas in the seventies. Even Mulroney in the eighties had a strong, adept and decisive figure about him that makes Martin and Harper look like shiftless fools.

Consider how soundly Chretien put Justice Gomery in his place over the Justice’s ill-advised interview comments back in December, calling the spending of $1200 to commission a set of personalized golf balls “small town cheap”.

Asked about the golf balls by his lawyer, Chretien pulled out a suitcase and started showing samples around. Here’s a quote from

“I have a ball here signed by a Texan by the name of George Bush,” he said after pulling a golf ball out of his light-brown briefcase. “I have one here signed by a gentleman from Tennessee: Al Gore, with the seal of Capitol Hill on the ball.” When his lawyer tried to stop him, Chretien said: “No, no, no: This is too much fun.”

“That’s our Chretien,” I said from the back of the car. “Always likes to play with his balls.”

And my father almost had to stop the car.

I have been as upset as the average Canadian by the suggestion that taxpayers dollars may have been improperly spent in the government’s rush to outspend and outsponsor the separatists following Canada’s narrow separation victory. I have been as interested as the next person in getting to the bottom of what funds were misspent, who benefitted from that, who knew about it and when.

But outside of Warren Kinsella’s admitted self interest in calling aspects of this inquiry into question, I am coming to the conclusion that the inquiry is resembling more of a circus than a serious probe.

Don’t blame Warren for my change of heart. Gomery himself opened the door with a series of unprecidented and ill advised comments to the media which allowed others to suspect bias. And then there was Bernard Roy’s rookie mistake, pouncing on evidence of double bookkeeping where there was none. The opposition continues to hammer the government with accusations that the government can’t reasonably answer while the inquiry is in process. And, finally, along comes Chretien, who blasts away the accusations that have been simmering around, illustrates the basic sense of the program he was responsible for, and points us in the direction of what the inquiry should be investigating.

We are not going to get to the bottom of things. Not with the impartiality of the chief justice suspect and with one of the commission council’s hungry for red meat. Even Claire Hoy says so, and I typically agree with this man once every leap year. And by sticking with this developing circus, the opposition is showing itself to be more interested in this inquiry as a means of bringing down this government rather than bringing accountability to Canadians.

It doesn’t help that again I am seeing again the same rounding-up error that the opposition used before when it first coined the term “Billion Dollar Boondoggle” to criticize questionable expenditures at Jane Stewart’s Human Resources and Development ministry. “Millions and millions” of dollars have been misspent in the advertising scandal, claim commentators. This is “a $250 million scandal”. But just as the billion dollar boondoggle referred to the entire HRDC budget and not the $50 million that was actually shown to be questionably spent, the amount of frivolous spending in AdScam is shrinking steadily to around $10 million. The Gomery Inquiry has already cost more than the scandal it’s supposed to investigate.

And whether or not you agree that the government should be spending money to advertise its presence to the people of Quebec, or boost retraining programs to help underemployed recent graduates to get a decent full-time job, the fact remains that this is a legitimate political expense if the money is well spent (as most of it was, apparently).

I am no fan of Paul Martin or his Liberals, but the antics around this inquiry show me yet again that the opposition isn’t capable of providing us with leadership that is substantially better. Are the Liberals arrogant and politically opportunistic? Yes. But what do you call the opposition when they overstate the size of frivolous expenditure to the tune of 2000%?

And why has there been no inquiry where it counts: the budget overrun of the gun registry? That’s a case where the government gave an actual number which fell hundreds of millions short of reality. I, for one, would be very interested to hear how a program I supported (and still believe in) cost so many times the original estimate.

But possibly to do that would tie the hands of the opposition, since by investigating the real mismanagement of a program that still has the support of large numbers of Canadians, the opposition would be unable to claim that it was faulty at its core without losing votes.

In aiming its rhetoric on the general public, it’s easier to pillory the government on soft programs, like increasing the visibility of the country in places where it’s needed, or providing training and assistance to those who don’t get work, than it is on a program that honestly tries to keep people from being shot.

The solution? Don’t pillory the whole on the sins of the part. Don’t look for the knockout punch. Canadians voted for the gun registry and they voted for strong measures to keep Quebec in confederation. You cobble together Liberal/NDP votes on any issue and Liberal/Reform votes on any other, and you’ll see that the majority of Canadians who voted, voted for the centrist approach. It’s the opposition’s duty not only to provide alternate policy before, during and after an election, but to ensure that the government is enacting its own policies to the best of its abilities.

And that means focusing on what’s not working, while admitting that some things are. It means focusing on the truth, and not merely on victory.

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