Brian Mulroney will leave the witness box this week in worse shape than when he entered it.
Given the unusual circumstances of his dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber, putting satisfactorily to rest the suspicions that gave rise to a public inquiry into his dealings with the German Canadian lobbyist was always going to be a quasi-impossible mission.
The image of a former prime minister taking envelopes stuffed with cash in hotel rooms and coffee shops is simply too powerful to be offset by after-the-fact excuses – including the most recent one involving a paucity of clerical assistance to oversee the creation of a proper paper trail to document the transactions.
But Mulroney’s testimony in front of the Oliphant commission has also raised more questions than it has answered regarding the tenor of his relationship with Schreiber while he was in office.
Indeed, if one were to look for one pivotal moment over the past five extraordinary days, it might be the point when the focus of the cross-examination shifted from post-government business life to his tenure as prime minister.
That’s a fundamental shift, for the period when the two protagonists whose dealings are under the microscope crossed paths while Mulroney was still in power is also the time where the public interest most obviously intersects with private matters in this affair.
Any lingering impression that the acquaintance between the prime minister and this lobbyist was merely casual was dispelled over the course of cross-examination.
The two had more meetings over his time in office than once he was actually on Schreiber’s payroll. There seemed to be no government period too intense to prevent Mulroney from finding time to sit down with his future business associate.
They met days after the failure of the Meech Lake accord in June 1990, when the government was on the verge of implosion; a few months later, the prime minister concerned himself with Schreiber matters even as he was on the way to Buckingham, Que., to give a crucial unity speech; he saw to it that the top people in his office give Schreiber time and attention.
Some of Mulroney’s closest collaborators – people he dealt with on a daily basis for years –came away from those encounters with negative impressions. Yet, over the course of almost a decade, none of those reservations was apparently communicated to the prime minister.
According to his version of events, that left him to assume that the man with whom he struck his first post-government commercial relationship was a model of entrepreneurial virtue.
Paul Tellier, Mulroney’s clerk of the Privy Council, was among those who was not impressed. His run-ins with Schreiber were significant enough to prompt the latter to write a long letter of complaint.
But if Mulroney is to be believed, it is harder for a lobbyist to communicate in writing with the prime minister than to have repeat meetings with him. He says PMO protocol would have ensured he not be aware of the correspondence.
The failure of a gatekeeper as formidable as Tellier to act on his doubts is in itself remarkable. As the then-top mandarin in Ottawa, he was usually more than up to the task of insulating the prime minister from needless or troublesome influences.
In the spring of 1990, Tellier was so successful at keeping Lucien Bouchard, Mulroney’s mercurial Quebec lieutenant, out of the Meech loop that the minister had an aide call Le Devoir’s Parliament Hill bureau to find out what his own government was up to.
That a clerk of the Privy Council who was vigilant enough to keep the prime minister’s most influential Quebec minister, and a personal friend to boot, at bay would prove unable to do the same in the case of a mere lobbyist is just one of many mind-boggling pieces of the puzzle put together over the past five days.
Chantal Hebert writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.