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True colours of Mulroney, Harper revealed

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It was a very bad week for Canadian democracy.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, a respected member of the Canadian bar, told the inquiry headed by Manitoba Justice Jeffrey Oliphant into his dealings with German Canadian arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber that he didn't have to tell the whole truth under oath because he wasn't asked the exact question.

And for the second time in as many years, Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched a barrage of intensely personal attack ads outside an election campaign against the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

Last Thursday, Mulroney faced withering cross-examination from inquiry counsel Richard Wolson about his sworn testimony to federal lawyers in 1996 necessitated by his lawsuit against the Canadian government. Asked to describe his relationship with Schreiber, Mulroney replied that they "would have a cup of coffee, I think, once or twice."

Wolson suggested that had the federal lawyers known then about the $225,000 total in three clandestine cash payments in envelopes Mulroney had already received from Schreiber in hotel rooms, "it would have absolutely fuelled the already raging fire of suspicion that was out there" concerning allegations Mulroney had received kickbacks from Air Canada's purchase of Airbus aircraft.

"I don't doubt it, but that question was never asked," Mulroney said.

Wolson tried again. "You had more than a cup of coffee, you had a cup of coffee and picked up $75,000."

"Yes, but what was the question to which I was responding?"

"(T)he essence of the meeting is more than coffee," Wolson attempted a third time.

"It might have been the essence of my being there, but it wasn't the essence of the question," Mulroney responded.

Last year, former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock told a parliamentary committee that had he known about the $225,000 cash payments, he would never have authorized the government's libel settlement with Mulroney.

The English versions of the latest barrage of personal attack ads, meanwhile, question Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's patriotism.

Harper is in no position to point fingers. He once derided Canada as "a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it." He also told an American audience that "Canada is content to become a second-tier socialist country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services, to mask its second-rate status."

The French language ads portray Ignatieff as anti-Quebec, claiming he speaks Parisian French because he is contemptuous of Quebec francophones and their accent; he believes, like former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, that Quebec must be kept in check, and he ridicules Quebecers as no more than North Americans who happen to speak French.

As with the Ignatieff "not in it for Canada, just visiting" English ads, this also is a case of the pot assailing the blackness of the kettle. As a member of the Reform and then the Canadian Alliance, was Harper not a vocal supporter of the partition of Quebec should it secede? Did he not ridicule bilingualism as the god who failed? Was he not a fierce opponent of Bill 101?

As Toronto Star/Montreal La Presse columnist and CBC commentator Chantal Hebert writes, it is "unprecedented" for a sitting prime minister to approve French language ads that depict a fellow federalist leader as hostile to Quebec.

For as long as there has been a sovereignty movement, she continues, "such a tactic has been deemed too potentially corrosive for the national fabric." Perhaps had Harper done battle in a sovereignty referendum, "he would be more wary of salting the federalist earth in Quebec for his own electoral purposes."

Harper's apparent fixation with personal attack ads outside elections is more evidence of his disregard for democratic norms and limits, the most vivid example of which was last winter's parliamentary crisis. Faced with defeat on a non-confidence vote, Harper and some of his ministers not only deliberately rubbed raw every one of Canada's deepest and most divisive linguistic and regional nerves, they threatened the office of the governor general and precipitated a prorogation precedent that turns Canada, in the words of one commentator, into "a banana republic with snowflakes."

Harper once boasted: "You won't recognize Canada when I get through with it." Since taking office, he's been carrying out his promise.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 20, 2009 A12

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