By Etienne Kishibe
The sponsorship scandal currently plaguing the Paul Martin government has been called in some quarters one of the biggest scandals in Canadian history.
Of course, it is nothing of the sort.
One need reach back only to the gun registry or the so-called “Billion-Dollar Boondoggle” at HRDC to find financial sink-holes much more voracious than the $100-million sponsorship debacle.
It isn’t even novel that the Liberals have been caught on this one. Auditor General Sheila Fraser spoke forcefully on other issues, but they didn’t end up causing serious problems for the party. Neither, amazingly, did Shawinigate.
The difference between this scandal and all the others of the past decade, quite simply, is the man taking the heat for it.
Jean Chrétien, that paragon of Canadian politics, knew something that Paul Martin apparently hadn’t learned when he came into office: the Canadian media, and the opposition parties, depend on a constant flow of reaction from the government to survive.
They eat up every sound bite from government representatives and analyze every statement, looking for hidden meanings and making accusations. They challenge every fact and denounce every claim. They ask for statements on the tiniest of developments and demand change.
But without fodder, they can’t do this.
Chrétien dealt with scandals in a simple and straight-forward way. He denied them over and over and over again until finally they disappeared from public view.
For ten years, Chrétien was able to push scandals under the rug. This is because he knew how to play the game.
The Canadian political system really leaves Canada’s leaders with few incentives to be responsible. A majority government can put through any legislation it wants, stifle debate simply by withholding its participation and face no actual consequences until the next election
A wily politician like Chrétien takes full advantage of these conditions.
Faced with his own scandal, however, Martin made the unfortunate mistake of acknowledging its existence.
Maybe he hoped to pin it on Chrétien and come out looking like the good guy. It didn’t work.
Nobody has any reason to blame Chrétien for anything anymore. Martin, by virtue of having given the pundits something to talk about, invited conjecture, speculation and accusation to circle him.
He watched the public debate grow and flourish across the country.
And he watched his party drop in the polls.
But Martin does seem to have learned his lesson.
He has handed the sponsorship file down the hierarchical ladder, in the hopes of never having to see it again. He has learned to be prime minister.
Whether this is a good thing is a matter of debate.