The long-awaited Quebec advertising scandal has finally broken, now that the Auditor General Sheila Fraser has given her scathing report. The Liberals braced themselves, and it has hit them hard (This is their response).
For my American readers who don't know what's going on, here's the brief summary: in the days following the Federalist's alarmingly razor-thin victory over the Separatists in the 1995 Quebec Referendum, the government of Jean Chretien went into overdrive. There were two major components of their "Plan B" to combat Quebec Separatism. Component #1: the Clarity Bill, federal legislation defining the terms under which Quebec or any province could reasonably negotiate separation from Canada. While acknowledging a province's right to leave Confederation after expressing a clear statement towards that end, the law prevents any provincial government from getting a positive referendum result on a vague question and using that to leverage separation.
Component #2 was to increase the federal government's presence in Quebec, which Warren Kinsella argues, was limited, at best:
"Under Brian Mulroney's watch, there were no Canadian flags flying at post offices in Quebec, or references to same on mailboxes. No flags in citizenship courts, even. Canada, as a concept, barely existed in the Province of Quebec - a state of affairs that helped the separatists to build a case that Canada was wholly irrelevant to Quebeckers."
The problem? As the Auditor General reports, it appears as though in the rush to spend money in Quebec, advertising the federal government and getting Canada's name at various shows and public events, members of the private sector may have enriched themselves, bilking Canadian taxpayers out of almost a hundred million dollars for shoddy or non-existent advertising work. This is a direct result of Chretien's Quebec policy, so we have to ask: what did Chretien and his Quebec ministers know and when?
It's interesting to note that Component #1, the Clarity Bill, also stirred up controversy, albeit for very different reasons. Many claimed that this measure would antagonize the Separatists awake in Quebec and they thought that the government was being foolhardy. To the surprise of many, this did not happen, and the Clarity Bill is now seen as one of the better elements of Chretien's legacy. The controversy surrounding Component #2 is the result of an air of complacency or scandal, which is an entirely different matter, but it remains to be seen whether all of Component #2 will be completely discredited or, just like the "Billion Dollar Boondoggle" of Human Resources Canada, the ratio between badly spent money and well-spent money is somewhere near 1-to-20.
Although the Auditor General's investigation has been thorough and independent, Chretien did himself no favours by appearing to use it as a delaying tactic (notice that the report hit after he was originally scheduled to leave office) -- or bundling one of the ministers responsible, Alfonso Gagliano, off to be the ambassador to Denmark. He REALLY did himself no favours choosing Denmark as the place to hide Gagliano; I mean, talk about giving the opposition a stick to beat you with (the "rotten in the state of Denmark" jokes that resulted were inevitable).
The thing is, Chretien is no longer in power, and Paul Martin has already made a big show of separating his administration from the Chretien legacy -- to the point of appearing mean-spirited. Will these latest revelations stick to the new guy? The opposition wishes they would. I myself don't have much of an opinion.
The beauty of the Canadian blogosphere is that, of course, you don't have to go far for an opinion.
On the "Get-them!" side of the fence, Paul Wells:
"It is not only illegitimate to use "national unity" as an excuse for what happened: it should be deeply offensive to every Canadian. The unity of a good country is not reinforced when its government runs the country like a pig sty. Shame on anyone who tries to argue otherwise."
On the "Get-over-yourselves!" side of the fence: Warren Kinsella:
"Yes, plenty of big mistakes were made. Yes, the administration of sponsorship program was damned sloppy. Yes, it was right to call in the Auditor General (which Chretien did) and the RCMP (ditto). But nowhere - nowhere - have I seen a scintilla of proof that anyone within government, officials or otherwise, enriched themselves. Zero, zippo, zilch. The enriching all took place in the private sector - for which the guilty parties will pay, and deservedly so."
I'm not going to defend the indefensible. Heads have rolled, more will be rolling in the days and weeks ahead. But to suggest that we shouldn't fight separatism with every (legal) means at our disposal is pure folly.
Because - believe me - the separatists will be back. And they, unlike Sheila Fraser and a select media chorus, won't be stepping onto the battlefield with their hands tied behind their collective backs.
Peter MacKay and Bill Blaikie will probably be ticked off at me, but I don't really care all that strongly -- or, at least, not as much as the hyperbole of the media would suggest. Yes, Ms. Fraser has uncovered serious missteps that need fixing, but Mulroney had worse scandals and worse deficits. Bob Rae, whose administration I really, really liked, stumbled far more often than we see here. Martin is at least making a show of dealing with the revelations and there is enough credibility there for me to give him the benefit of the doubt when he says that something similar won't happen during his time in office.
The scandal and the incompetence aside, the $64,000 question remains: can the Conservatives or the New Democrats govern us any better than the Liberals now do? Frankly, I don't think so. And as long as the Liberals show energy, this Canadian is, albeit wary and desirous of improvement, content to have this governing party serving us for the next four years, even though I do expect to vote NDP.
The Quebec advertising scandal was only one issue that the Auditor General examined. She also considered the suspicious purchase of two $100 million Lear jets for government use, and highlighted underfunding and understaffing in Canada's heritage libraries and archives.
One other comment I have: despite my willingness to not crucify Paul Martin, thank God that we have an Auditor General at all who brings these things to light. It is thanks, somewhat, to the prudence that created her position that we have a handle on our finances and are not spending more than we're taking in and, for 99% of the time, spending what we are taking in wisely. One can only imagine what Ms. Fraser would have to say if she looked at George W. Bush's books and his half-trillion-dollar deficit.
She'd probably have a stroke.