Monday, February 16, 2004

Ottawa scandals stink, and smell's on Martin too

Ottawa scandals stink, and smell's on Martin too
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The federal government stole from you, just as surely as some petty criminal who breaks a window and takes your TV.
And Prime Minister Paul Martin's claim that he couldn't have known anything about all this is impossible to take seriously.
The scandal revealed by Auditor General Sheila Fraser was stunning, even if details have been trickling out for several years. The federal government shovelled out $250 million under a phony program aimed at promoting Canadian unity.
A huge amount of money -- perhaps $100 million -- went to Liberal friends and insiders, who were paid millions for doing no work, according to Fraser.
The RCMP, Canada Post, Via Rail, senior politicians and bureaucrats were all part of the rip-off. The scam continued over four years between 1997 and 2001, with every rule in the book broken, according to Fraser.
"Rules for selecting communications agencies, managing contracts and measuring and reporting results were broken or ignored," Fraser found.
"These violations were neither detected, prevented nor reported for over four years because of the almost total collapse of oversight mechanisms and essential controls."
Martin reacted with shock and horror. He fired former public works minister Alfonso Gagliano, linked to the scandal, from his post as ambassador to Denmark and announced a judicial inquiry.
And then he started to offer his defense. Martin claimed this was all the result of a conspiracy by rogue criminal bureaucrats who set out -- for reasons unknown -- to shovel millions out the door so cleverly that no one knew what was happening.
But Martin was the finance minister. He was vice-chair of Treasury Board, the powerful cabinet committee that approves all government spending.
He was a political force, and a Liberal main man in Quebec, where most of the money was flowing. He had a network of operatives across the country.
Far be it from me to challenge Martin's claim to ignorance. But if he didn't know what was going on, he should have.
This wasn't some incredibly complicated computer fraud, or "a very sophisticated cover-up," as Martin described it. It was people crudely ripping off the taxpayers, faking invoices or sending out cheques for millions of dollars with no approvals at all.
Liberal-friendly companies were paid millions in commissions for tasks such as cashing a cheque and forwarding the money on to some organization.
And remember, this is the man who claims a keen business mind and sharp eye for waste. That doesn't reconcile well with his apparent blindness to the scam while he was the man running the government's finances.
Even $250 million isn't a large amount given the size of the federal budget. (Though Martin was also at the table as the gun registry cost climbed over $1 billion.)
But it's not small change, either. And it's the kind of expense that should send off alarm bells for any competent manager or director, in government or the private sector.
I'm not alone in my doubts. A poll taken in Quebec last week found 75 per cent of those surveyed believe Martin knew of irregularities in the sponsorship program. Only 13 per cent believed him when he says he was in the dark.
The record indicates Martin has hardly been a champion of openness and honesty. He voted against reforming the Access to Information Act to improve accountability; he voted against an independent ethics counsellor; he voted against an independent inquiry into the Human Resources Development scandal.
The question isn't just what Martin did or didn't know. It's what he could be reasonably expected to know, or ask about, as an experienced senior cabinet minister with a vast political network and a strong party base.
Until those questions are answered, it's offensive to think that the Liberals would go ahead with plans for a spring election. The public needs the facts before they vote on who will run the country for the next five years.
Footnote: The best political news for the Liberals is that the opposition remains in its own state of disarray. The new Conservative party is tied up in a clunky leadership campaign, and the New Democrats are still struggling to make a national impact. The scandal has handed both parties a golden opportunity.

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