Gomery Report's New Battles

JUSTICE JOHN GOMERY'S fact-finding report into the sponsorship mess is a hefty piece of work - 686 pages in its main volume, plus two little sidecar books if that's not enough - but it's definitely a page-turner.

Gomery Report's New Battles

JUSTICE JOHN GOMERY'S fact-finding report into the sponsorship mess is a hefty piece of work - 686 pages in its main volume, plus two little sidecar books if that's not enough - but it's definitely a page-turner. A tale of "greed, venality and misconduct" featuring big money, shady characters and furtive meetings in an atmosphere of national crisis. Ottawa, not normally a literary town, was all agog when the tome landed, with a considerable thud, on Nov. 1.

Now come the reviews. Some commentators feel the author has tied things up a bit too neatly. If Jean CHRÉTIEN and his trusty henchman, Jean Pelletier, deserve to be "blamed for omissions" in managing the sponsorship program, why was a Liberal of almost equal stature at the time - Paul MARTIN - "exonerated from any blame for carelessness or misconduct"?

One reviewer, La Presse columnist Lysiane Gagnon, found "suspicious zeal" in Gomery's eagerness to deliver Martin from any blame. Another, the National Post's Don Martin, found "a curious pattern of selective believability" in Gomery's findings against Chrétien. If Gomery found one of the shadiest figures in the scandal, the retired bureaucrat Chuck Guité, to be "a man without scruples" who "simply has no credibility" in most of his testimony, why was Gomery so eager to believe Guité whenever it made Pelletier and Chrétien look bad?

The Adscam affair and Paul Martin's response has always woven three rich dramatic threads together: electoral politics, Liberal family feuds, and the administration of taxpayer dollars. Gomery's report hasn't brought any of those stories to an end. Indeed, each will take on new significance.

First, electoral politics. That's why everyone was watching Jack LAYTON last week, even though the NDP leader wasn't even a bit player in the Gomery revelations. NDP support in Parliament is the closest thing the Liberals have to a guarantee of survival through the winter. For much of last week, Layton seemed unsure about whether the Liberals were still worth supporting. By the end of the week, he seemed willing to stick with Martin in return for measures to limit private-sector health care delivery.

Whenever the election does come, the campaign will be very much about Gomery's report. Will it remind Canadians of the swamp of ugliness at the heart of the Chrétien-era Liberal party's Quebec wing, and hurt or destroy Martin's re-election chances? Or does exoneration, however hasty, give the Martin Liberals the fresh start they have so cruelly lacked until now?

The second drama is almost a family affair. For the third time since Martin left Chrétien's cabinet in 2002, the Liberal party is teetering on the brink of civil war.

By moving swiftly to put as much distance between his government and this scandal as he could, Martin has reopened old rifts between his supporters and Chrétien nostalgists. Ten people named in the Gomery report were informed they were banned for life from the Liberal party - even though only three were actually members at the beginning of the week. The Quebec wing of the party wasn't informed of the decision. And nobody could be entirely sure Martin even has the power to issue lifetime bans. Martin sent the report to the RCMP to feed their continuing investigation into the sponsorship scandal. The party itself cut a cheque for $1.14 million, the amount (hotly contested by opposition parties) it says it was improperly paid in kickbacks in the late 1990s by nouveau riche admen eager to keep the money taps flowing.

Only hours after those measures were announced, Chrétien stormed into the National Press Theatre and announced he will try to have the report quashed in federal court. Gomery "reached conclusions that are, in no way, based on the evidence before him," Chrétien complained. "He chose to ignore or misrepresent the clear evidence." Still smarting from Martin's efforts to distance himself from a government in which, after all, he served as finance minister, Chrétien proceeded to mock Martin's Quebec lieutenant, the Liberal-turned-Bloc-Québécois-founder-turned-Liberal Jean Lapierre. With that, the uneasy peace between the current and former leader of Canada's governing party evaporated once again.

The third subplot in the post-Gomery drama will receive far less attention. But it may actually have more impact on the way Canadians are governed. Senior federal bureaucrats say that already, with Gomery's final recommendations still ahead, attempts to clamp down on abuse are limiting the government's power to act, even when it should.

"You can't rule-make character," one deputy minister said, speaking on condition of anonymity. But since the commotion over a damning audit of Human Resources grants and contributions in 2000, this official said, wave after wave of scared Liberal ministers have implemented a system of "10 minders for one actor."

After the Human Resources uproar, the government hired 600 new auditors. There's been a boom of private-sector consultants who can help departments draw up results-based management accountability frameworks. These are arcane mechanisms for making sure tax dollars don't go astray, "but which nobody actually understands," one mid-level civil servant said. "It's just something you have to do."

It all tends to clog up the government's action - without any guarantee that ambitious fraudsters won't dance around even the tightest rules. "Do you think government should be doing more to put emergency-preparedness plans in place? You'd think that would make a lot of sense," the mid-level bureaucrat said. "But how much time do you think the people who are supposed to do that are spending with Treasury Board justifying every dollar they spend? How many salary dollars does that cost, for every dollar they actually spend on the problem?"

One person who worries that the sponsorship scandal has unfairly tainted the system is, in fact, John Gomery. "The dramatic revelations at public inquiries and the media attention given to them tend to distort reality and to make the misconduct that the inquiry uncovers appear to be more widespread than it really was," he wrote in his report. "I fear that has occurred in this case." In a report that everyone seemed to have read, it was a passage almost nobody seemed to notice.

Maclean's November 14, 2005