Chrétien to Testify at Gomery Inquiry

FROM THE MOMENT it was announced a year ago, the Gomery commission of inquiry into rampant abuse of sponsorship programs seemed custom-designed to reveal the worst aspects of Jean CHRÉTIEN's tenure as prime minister.

Chrétien to Testify at Gomery Inquiry

FROM THE MOMENT it was announced a year ago, the Gomery commission of inquiry into rampant abuse of sponsorship programs seemed custom-designed to reveal the worst aspects of Jean CHRÉTIEN's tenure as prime minister. Which made it all the more surprising that - before Chrétien even takes the stand this week to explain his role in the program - a pair of high-profile personalities spent last week trying hard to get on his good side.

First came John Gomery himself. The sober-sided judge had permitted himself to deliver a few casual observations to reporters before Christmas, including his belief that in allowing taxpayer-funded golf balls to bear Chrétien's signature, the former prime minister was being "small-town cheap."

Big mistake. David Scott, Chrétien's lawyer, called for Gomery to step down over this and other perceived sins. Gomery declined, but he was uncharacteristically contrite as he said so. Calling his words "ill-advised and inappropriate," Gomery added: "I very much regret this distraction." Scott promptly warned reporters that Gomery's mea culpa might not be enough. Scott has a month to decide whether to appeal Gomery's decision to Federal Court and is considering the option, he said.

Suddenly, on the eve of getting Chrétien into a witness box, Gomery found himself in a box of his own. Suddenly, Paul MARTIN was oddly eager to say nice things about Jean Chrétien. Mere hours after Gomery's performance, Martin rose in the House of Commons, in reply to a question from Conservative MP Peter MacKay, and delivered an ode to Chrétien that had little to do with MacKay's question - and a lot to do with how fiercely Martin's old foe has pushed his advantage at the Gomery inquiry. "Let us look at what we had in common," Martin said. "The elimination of the deficit; the creation of the national child benefit. Who was the person who said that we would not send troops into Iraq? Yes, Mr. Speaker, I am very proud of what the last government did."

Privately, Chrétien's associates say Martin is perilously late in publicly acknowledging the virtues of the government in which he laboured as finance minister for close to nine years. They acknowledge that auditor general Sheila Fraser's examination of the sponsorship program turned up troubling allegations, but they see a dose of petty vindictiveness in Martin's response - setting up the commission - that still makes many of them very angry indeed. And they say Chrétien has approached his defence with the meticulous care and steely purpose that made him a dangerous adversary to political opponents for 40 years.

"There's an old saying that generals are best equipped to fight the last war," one long-time Chrétien associate said. "The guys around Martin had pretty much demonstrated that there was no danger, and steadily increasing advantage, in blaming the government for everything that went wrong. It was only when the reporters first took a scimitar to Martin in that first disastrous scrum [the day Fraser released her report, when a hapless Martin claimed, "I have no idea what was going on here"] that they realized they were now the government. And they had misjudged horribly."

Frantically casting about for an alternative narrative, Martin made a further mistake that, sources say, only made Chrétien angrier. In a news conference, Martin said that preserving national unity - Chrétien's favourite explanation for the creation of the Quebec-centred sponsorship function - could not justify "the wilful breaking of the rules and law."

Chrétien and his closest allies, former policy adviser Eddie Goldenberg and former campaign strategist John Rae, were "absolutely outraged," the long-time Chrétien associate says. Former officials in the Chrétien government spontaneously phoned Chrétien's office at the law firm Heenan Blaikie to offer a quick response. "We were drafting statements for Chrétien to deliver that could conceivably have ended with the words, 'and so I have contacted my lawyers.' "

The impromptu Chrétien team decided to refrain from such an extraordinary step: immediate direct legal action against Martin. But sources say Chrétien has followed the Gomery proceedings closely and that he consults regularly with Scott, Goldenberg, his former chief of staff Jean Pelletier, and a broader network of friends and former employees as he prepares to take the witness stand this week.

When Chrétien finally did decide to put his legal team on the offensive, it was because of Gomery's loose-lipped pre-Christmas statements, says another former associate. To Chrétien, the interview suggested a prejudice that needed correcting, either by an act of contrition on Gomery's part or by replacing Gomery.

Sources say Chrétien's testimony will attempt to provide what one called "the one thing that's been missing from this huge inquiry: context." That context, of course, is the national unity crisis that Chrétien inherited and which lasted, he plans to argue, at least until Lucien Bouchard resigned as premier of Quebec in January 2001. The sponsorship program, Chrétien will maintain, was one part of a broad set of policies designed to take the fight to Quebec separatists. And as he has already shown Gomery, Chrétien spares no effort when he's in a fight.

And what prompted Martin's belated declaration of pride in his association with Chrétien? Martin will testify after Chrétien does - and among the lawyers who will have the right to cross-examine the sitting Prime Minister is David Scott, Chrétien's man. Not, Chrétien's advisers protest, that this is a grudge match. "He's not doing this to get Martin," one said. "That's ridiculous. He's not staying up at night worrying about what it does to Martin either."

Maclean's February 14, 2005