VICTORIA - We're jaded out here, accustomed to seeing Ottawa as some strange distant land, kind of like the Emerald City in Oz.
There are gatekeepers, and shiny buildings, and men behind curtains pulling at levers to create the illusion of the great and powerful wizard, and it's all surreal and far away.
Then along comes Jean Brault, tugging on the curtains.
Brault is the first blockbuster witness at the Gomery Inquiry, naming names and dates and amounts. His testimony was at first secret, then public. It's very bad.
Brault ran Groupaction, a middling ad agency in Montreal. He wanted work from the federal government. So Brault says that in 1995 he hired Liberal fundraiser Alain Renaud, who promised federal contracts for Groupaction.
Over the next five years, Brault paid Renaud $1.1 million. More than $200,000 a year for part-time consulting, with no specific duties.
It worked. Federal contracts, big ones, came to Groupaction. Renaud introduced Brault to the big guys, including Jean Chretien advisor Jean Carle. Renaud spent most of his time working for the Liberal Party, Brault says, but who cared. Everybody was making money. Brault was told to buy some tickets for fundraisers, then hire some Liberal workers and write some big cheques, he testified. Big wheels from the Liberal party’s Quebec organization kept asking Brault for money and favours in return for federal government contracts. He kept saying yes.
So he paid the salaries of three Liberal party workers, gave $4,000 to Jean Chretien’s brother, hired Chretien's niece and agreed to pay $100,000 to get a contract to promote the gun registry. (Albertans faint in indignation here.)
It was sordid. Brault said Benoît Corbeil, the executive director of the party's Quebec wing, asked for a $400,000 donation and promised a $3-million sponsorship contract in return. Jacques Corriveau, a Chretien confidante, got $500,000.
"When it comes to sponsorships, it's clear in my mind. If it wasn't for the investments of all types that we made towards the party, despite our abilities, our share of the pie would have been very small," he testified.
His actual share was very large. From 1995 to 2001 he got $112-million in advertising contracts and $60-million in sponsorship contracts from the federal government.
It all has a Sopranos quality to it, lots of cash and mystery and nods and winks, an envelope of money left on a restaurant table while Brault goes to the washroom, gone when he gets back. The Liberal Party got $1.2 million in all, Brault says.
None of this is ancient history. It was all going on up to three years ago, when the news of the scandal broke and everyone went to ground.
None of this is proven either. Maybe Brault, facing criminal charges, is lying. Maybe, as the Liberals claim, they're the victims, unwitting dupes of clever, bad men who took advantage. Maybe other evidence before the Gomery Inquiry will provide a different view.
But today Canadians are left with the image of sleazy governing party that enriched friendly businesspeople and channelled tax dollars to itself. And they are wondering how an operation of this scale could be invisible to those at the top - why they didn't wonder, for example, about those operatives who seemed able to work full-time for the party without ever expecting a salary.
The New Democrats and Conservatives face a decision. Will people be more upset by the scandal now, or in the fall when Gomery reports? (The Bloc Quebecois does not have to worry. The anger in Quebec is lasting.)
The fairest course - and the best one - would be for them to wait until all the evidence is in before sending us back to the polls.
They don't have to worry about memories fading. Even for jaded British Columbians, this all seems too grand to be waved off as just one of those Ottawa things.
Footnote: The scandal is devastating to Liberal prospects in Quebec, and ironically - given the sponsorship program's stated aim - a boon to separatists. But the question figuring heavily in the parties' calculations is whether even this kind of damaging evidence can persuade Liberal voters in Ontario - or B.C. - to vote for Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.