“Thank you,” Brian Mulroney said in his usual polite way when Karlheinz Schreiber passed over the large envelope containing $100,000 in cash. “Thank you very much.”
That first paragraph in A Secret Trial: Brian Mulroney, Stevie Cameron and the Public Trust, William Kaplan’s second book about the former prime minister, is clear, succinct and significant. Would that the hundreds that follow met the same standard.
The information in it—that shortly after he left political office in 1993, Mulroney accepted a number of cash payments totalling $300,000 from a German Canadian wheeler-dealer—is not new. It was first unearthed four years ago by National Post reporter Philip Mathias, who tried vainly to persuade the Conrad Black–Izzy Asper–owned newspaper to publish it. Finally, it saw the light of day in November 2003 in one of a series of articles in The Globe and Mail written by Kaplan and various Globe staffers. These formed the basis of this book.
The stunning revelation of the cash payments attracted surprisingly little attention in the news media and the public at that time. Incredible as it seems, far more controversy was generated by the allegation in the same Globe series that prominent journalist Stevie Cameron had been a confidential police informant during investigations into the “Airbus affair.” These RCMP investigations had tried unsuccessfully to link together, among other things, commissions paid in Europe to Schreiber on the sale of Airbus aircraft to Air Canada and Schreiber’s dealings with Mulroney and some other members of his administration and entourage.
But the prospect of publishing information about the $300,000 certainly got the attention of one Canadian. Brian Mulroney, according to Kaplan, launched an “unrelenting campaign to persuade me not to publish the story about the money for one reason only—to protect his reputation.” This pressure was described as “brutal, heavy-handed, and extremely wearing.”
What made it particularly acrimonious was that Kaplan’s previous book on the Mulroney regime, Presumed Guilty: Brian Mulroney, the Airbus Affair and the Government of Canada(1998), had been a stirring defence of the former prime minister against allegations in Cameron’s best-seller about the Mulroney regime in Ottawa, aptly titled On the Take: Crime, Corruption, and Greed in the Mulroney Years (1995). When Kaplan later came across information about the $300,000, he was furious because he had been duped by Mulroney during many interviews for his first book.
Just before the story about the $300,000 was published by the Globe, Kaplan contends that he and Mulroney had a final telephone conversation. Mulroney apparently wanted the conversation off the record. Kaplan should have said no but did not. In any event, he described it in his book:
He talked about honour. I pointed out that he was not the only person with honour. I had sat in his house and he had told me that he barely knew Schreiber—and that was not true. He responded: “I regret any inconvenience that I may have caused.”
I could not believe my ears. I had trusted Brian Mulroney. He had looked me in the eye. He had told me the same story he told the Canadian people—the same untrue, misleading story that he had a “peripheral” relationship with Karlheinz Schreiber. He regretted the inconvenience…?
I had worked like a dog getting my book done … all the time defending him while attacking the misconduct of the government and the RCMP. Raising my voice for the first time ever in a discussion with him, I told him it was not good enough. He then said,“I’m sorry.”
And that is where it stands, at least for now. It seems clear that Mulroney did accept cash payments in 1993–94 from Schreiber, a man with a dubious history currently fighting extradition to face charges of corruption in Germany, but no one knows for sure what the money was for.
“How was it papered?” asks Kaplan in the book. “Are there invoices, for example? If I were Brian Mulroney, the first thing I would do is give a full public explanation about the commercial relationship. It is odd, at best, that he has not done so.”
Nothing odd about it at all. As the various scandals of the Mulroney years fade into history, overshadowed by the fresher scandals of the Chrétien period, the rehabilitation of Brian Mulroney proceeds apace. Last April, only six months after the Globe exposed the $300,000 payment, the same newspaper ran a flattering 7,000-word profile on the former prime minister and his many influential contacts in international business and political circles. The mantle of elder statesman, once an awkward fit on the shoulders of one of the most unpopular prime ministers in recent history, now slips more and more smoothly into place.
“How will historians assess him in the light of the material presented here?” asks historian Jack Granatstein in his foreword to Kaplan’s book. “It is too soon to be certain, but Kaplan’s evidence at a minimum will call into question the place in history Mulroney thought he had been restored to with his victory over the Chrétien government in the Airbus affair. The future will decide.”
Even that cautious assessment may be overly optimistic about the impact of this book if the muted reaction to the Globe’s 2003 scoop is any indication. A Secret Trial, despite its length, really contains little more in the way of damning revelations than the Globe series did, either about Brian Mulroney or his hated nemesis, Stevie Cameron. It does, however, provide more detail than many Canadians perhaps will want about Cameron’s involvement in the RCMP investigation of the former prime minister.
This is a problem for the book as a piece of political journalism and there are two reasons for this.
The first and more superficial one is that Kaplan declared war, in a sense, on Cameron when he attacked On the Take and then, in his second and very different book, had to cope with the optics of appearing to vindicate Cameron’s book. Fortunately for him, by the time this problem emerged Cameron herself had provided him with ammunition—a controversy about her dealings with the RCMP who were investigating Mulroney.
In essence this matter, unlike Mulroney’s commercial affairs, is quite simple. Like many journalists in the same situation, during the years of her research Cameron found herself trading information with her police sources. She wanted these contacts to be off the record. As a result, some of the police started to treat her as a “confidential source” and to designate her as such in their official documents. She denied instigating this classification, which was instrumental in bringing about the unusual “secret trial” in Toronto that gave Kaplan the title of his book and the subject of more than half of its pages. Because of the legalistic matter in these pages and the fact that Kaplan has all the literary ability that one would expect from a lawyer and labour arbitrator with a doctorate in legal history, understanding these pages is a tough slog for any layperson such as myself who doggedly sets out to read every one and does. That’s the second reason why the book fails as an engrossing piece of political journalism.
It is not that the issues raised by Cameron’s behaviour are not important. They are, particularly for journalists, and they have been heatedly debated among journalists ever since the Globe series appeared. So Kaplan did not have to sell me on the issue that obviously obsessed him. Yes, I agree that “journalists must be totally independent of powerful interests, including the police.” Of course “journalists have to trade information” with the police on occasion, but “what a reporter can never do is cross the line and compromise this independence.” When that happens, when “permissible cooperation” becomes “impermissible cooptation,” the offending journalist “trespasses on the reporter’s most basic responsibility: to maintain the public trust” and “there can be no forgiveness.”
A bit dogmatic, perhaps, but every journalist would agree that being an official, coded “confidential police informant” is not a good idea for a reporter. Even if it is inadvertent or the result of overeager investigative journalism—both distinct possibilities in Stevie Cameron’s case—it is bad for journalism and can be disastrous for the individual journalist. No argument here, but Kaplan seems to feel that he has to go on endlessly about this to explain and justify his vendetta against Cameron.
Because of the space given to this in his book, Kaplan is more or less forced into the position of equating Cameron’s behaviour with Mulroney’s. He approvingly quotes a columnist for the Ottawa Sun who wrote that Stevie Cameron “now joins the long list of people who had a public trust and betrayed it.”
Now wait a minute. I am as interested in freedom of the press as anyone, including William Kaplan, but it seems to me that there is a big difference between a journalist becoming imprudently entangled with a police investigation and a prime minister or former prime minister using his position to secretly and improperly enrich himself, if that is what actually happened. Anyway, Cameron has already paid a heavy price in terms of professional reputation—she was “denounced” by the executive of the Canadian Association of Journalists earlier this year in a controversial press release—while Mulroney was invited to Washington to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of former president Ronald Reagan. Kaplan’s critique of Cameron is so prolonged and repetitious that it creates a dangerous imbalance in the book.
Kaplan’s book comes replete with foreword and afterword. Usually, an afterword is something to be skimmed over lightly—a place for authors to bring things up to date or unburden themselves of information that did not quite fit into the book. Not in this case. The afterword of A Secret Trial is one of the best parts of the book. In fact, it is almost a short book in itself and is, I hope, the rough sketch of an eventual political memoir by Norman Spector, a frequent columnist for The Globe and Mail and former chief of staff to Mulroney, Canadian ambassador to Israel and publisher of theJerusalem Post.
Spector’s 28-page afterword brought me back to the most important topic of Kaplan’s book: political corruption. Without explicitly raising the question, Spector’s recollections of his years in Ottawa made me wonder whether Canadian politics are in fact becoming more corrupt as the country ages.
In fact, I do not think so. I think what we saw, during the terms of prime ministers Mulroney and Chrétien, were the after-effects of the corruption that characterized Quebec politics before 1960, particularly during the Duplessis years.
Spector confesses that “even after working for Brian Mulroney, I cannot say for certain why he wanted to be prime minister … he didn’t seem to have strong ideological views, nor did he have any particular policy agenda.” That was my own impression when I first met Mulroney in Montreal in the 1960s, when he was a young lawyer and political activist and I was a local CBC television anchor. Over a drink or two in a basement bar of Place Ville Marie, we always talked about the warfare of politics, never about political philosophy.
Mulroney was competitive in the extreme. Liberals were enemies. Worse, they were enemies who were becoming more powerful by enriching themselves on the spoils of office. Mulroney could not wait for his turn. I don’t recall any talk about cleaning up the system. My impression was that he just wanted to get his hands on the levers of power, to kick those bastards away from the trough and to take their place. This may sound a bit brutal but that is the way I remember it.
Spector is obviously more sympathetic to Mulroney than to Chrétien (this comes as no surprise, I’m sure, to readers of his Globe columns), but this context makes his criticism of Mulroney all the more damning. He refers to the former prime minister’s “cloying exterior”—the extreme side of his “wicked sense of humour” as a “great storyteller.” There was his ingratiating attitude toward the rich and powerful, a trait that Spector puts down to “the insecurities of an outsider who had grown up as a working-class anglophone on Quebec’s North Shore” and the cynicism beneath his Irish charm (“more than once, for example, he warned me never to believe that Canadians were a generous and tolerant people,” Spector recalls).
On a more fundamental level, Spector provides a brief but telling glimpse of Mulroney’s modus operandi when he wished to exert his personal influence on matters of government. In this case, it was in relation to Bearhead, the code name for a typically Schreiberian attempt to promote the building of armoured vehicles in the Maritimes for Canadian forces. At one point Mulroney handed the Bearhead file to Spector and asked him to “ensure it was approved expeditiously,” as Spector relates. When Spector cautiously brought the proposal before a group of ministers and bureaucrats, Schreiber’s prediction that it “would not cost a dime” turned out to be off by at least $100 million. “In that case,” Mulroney told him, “the project is dead.” A decade later, however, Spector discovered accidentally that Bearhead was still very much in play after he had left the Prime Minister’s Office, “that a project that he had said had been killed on my recommendation never, in fact, died.” If this is true, it is damning indeed.
None of this would have seemed surprising to anyone familiar with the way Quebec politics had functioned under Duplessis, whose Union Nationale party was the informal ally of the federal Tories, the right-wing nationalist Quebec link that worked so well for Mulroney until it blew up in his face and almost destroyed the federal party.
Jean Chrétien was a graduate of the same school of politics. The record of the official Quebec inquiry in the early 1960s that dissected Duplessis’s system of patronage reads, as I recall it, like the recent revelations of the sponsorship scandal. There are the same basic ingredients: the lists of companies favoured for government contracts and the kickbacks by them to party funds. It was not surprising that when Chrétien got into trouble, when almost losing the referendum in Quebec scared the daylights out of him, these old patterns would re-emerge. But I do not think they indicated anything significant about long-term trends of political morality in Canada or in Quebec where, in fact, they were resented as being an embarrassing reminder of the bad old days.
If you look at the list of Canadian prime ministers since the 1950s, nothing indicates a continuing plunge in ethical standards. Neither Lester Pearson nor John Diefenbaker left office under a suspicion of patronage. Pierre Trudeau, as Spector recalls, was “the last of our prime ministers to enter politics with a well-defined agenda.” As an opponent of Duplessis in the 1950s, he was a product of the new Quebec of the Quiet Revolution, unlike both Mulroney and Chrétien who came to office with one intent—the acquisition and retention of power in the old style. Trudeau did make a number of Senate and other traditional patronage appointments when he left office, but these were done publicly, unlike the hidden deals of old-style political corruption.
This historical perspective creates uncertainty about the ethical standards that will characterize the regime of Paul Martin, should it survive the next election. Martin may face allegations that he knew more than he has ever admitted about the sponsorship scandal. Spector also questions Martin’s motives for seeking the highest office. “Fundamentally,” he writes, “Martin’s decade-long campaign was about who should govern, not about good government.”
Throughout his afterword, Spector reflects on many depressing aspects of Ottawa politics. He writes frankly about political pressures on civil servants during both Mulroney and Chrétien’s terms of office.
“If a deputy minister in Ottawa is fortunate,” he writes, “he’ll never have to manage dollars dear to a prime minister.”
In a revealing aside, Spector remembers “onevery courageous woman [in the civil service] who refused to knuckle under to PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] and PCO [Privy Council Office] pressure to approve dubious projects.” He writes that “today, she is raising dogs and walking the beach in Nova Scotia.”
Spector says that “the biggest change under Chrétien was in the political coloration of the pollsters, law firms, investment brokers, and advertising firms that did business with the government.”
“It was only after he left office that Canadians saw the full dimension of the rot.” He then adds tellingly, “One has to wonder where the media were during these years.”
Well, during the Mulroney years, at least one journalist was doing her best to investigate allegations of corruption in high places and, as it turned out, getting herself into hot water in the process. Despite William Kaplan’s strong condemnation of Stevie Cameron, I would rather have a journalist making her kind of mistakes than no journalistic investigations at all, which is what we get these days from the vast majority of Canadian newspapers and radio and television networks, with the exception of The Globe and Mail, the National Post and the CBC.
Peter Desbarats spent 30 years as a print and TV journalist before being appointed dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario. Now retired, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006.