Social philosophers call it a contract, not a deal, but here it is: Millions of ordinary people agree not to holler too loudly as long as the powerful few don’t abuse public trust too obviously.
Six days of Brian Mulroney testimony gives law-abiding, taxpaying citizens urgent cause to reconsider the bargain.
Until the former prime minister began telling his story, there was a consensus that the worst damage had already been done. After all, there’s been ample time to reach collective conclusions about a man who rose to Canada’s highest elected office only to plunge to the depths of pocketing suspect cash.
That consensus was wrong. Having already tested any remaining public faith in public officials, Mulroney is now straining the assumption that we all equally share the burden of paying income tax.
Mulroney’s “pretty good deal,” as inquiry commissioner Jeffrey Oliphant labelled a six-year-late tax settlement, suggests everyone else’s is a bit raw. It would be unwise for you to tuck $225,000 in household safes and a bank deposit box, keep silent about it for six years and then expect to pay taxes on only half.
True, kindly federal and Quebec tax collectors, the same ones who routinely impose deadlines, instalment payments and compound interest penalties, didn’t know they were dealing with the 18th prime minister of Canada. But it’s also true that Richard Wolson, Oliphant’s relentless counsel, keeps drawing attention to what should have been known before any federal lawyer or accountant reached any agreement with Mulroney.
The most disturbing of those deals – and the one now most likely to trouble Stephen Harper – is the decision to pay Mulroney $2.1 million to settle a lawsuit over the 1995 letter Canada sent to the Swiss about the RCMP Airbus investigation.
What the federal government didn’t know when it wrote that cheque was that Mulroney’s relationship with lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber went well beyond the occasional cup of coffee to three memorably large cash payments.
Sounding every bit the seasoned politician, Mulroney insists he was ready with the truth if federal lawyers had only posed precisely the right question.
Whatever the explanation, the impression remains, fair or not, that Mulroney got another pretty good deal when Ottawa bought its way out of his legal action.
Hours of inquiry curiosity have been exhausted on that settlement.
So it’s a relatively safe bet that Oliphant will offer a perspective of keen interest to Harper.
Any suggestion that millions changed hands on the strength of vague Mulroney Airbus testimony would inflame claims that Canadians are owed a refund.
Just the possibility is enough to cause shudders in a ruling party already divided by this inquiry and Harper’s edict to keep away from Mulroney. With an election in the rising wind, a Conservative government would be under intense public pressure to pursue a former Conservative prime minister.
A strikingly similar inquiry and effort to repair the past ruptured Liberals in 2004. Now Harper, who after capturing the old Tory party began taking credit for all its historic achievements, could find himself, too much like Paul Martin, distancing himself from one of the party’s embarrassments and a toxic political predecessor.
That would be hazardous. Harper would either risk a Conservative schism or be forced to pretend that this inquiry hasn’t torn apart the deal binding powerful politicians to ordinary people and that the pieces are lying on the floor.
Jim Travers writes for the Toronto Star Syndicate.