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Reaping and sowing at the Gomery inquiry

The Auditor-General of Canada doesn't apologize. Ever. It's not Sheila Fraser's style, especially when you've become a kind of secular saint.

But Ms. Fraser did offer a mild corrective, if that's the way to phrase what she wrote in her November report to Parliament.

Typically, her musings were all but ignored by a media prizing only criticisms of government stupidity, error, malfeasance, faulty procedures and inattentiveness.

Ms. Fraser is not responsible for, but she has certainly contributed to, the widespread perspective that the federal government wastes almost every dollar sent its way through a mixture of venality, mistakes, pocket-lining and laziness.

Civil servants, by definition, were all tarred with this dark brush of ineptitude -- a brush that got darker after Ms. Fraser's report into the federal sponsorship scandal that led a deer-in-the-headlights Prime Minister to establish the Gomery inquiry. Its hearings resumed yesterday in the wake of completely unacceptable public comments offered before Christmas by Mr. Justice John Gomery himself.

Wrote Ms. Fraser: "In a large and complex organization like the federal government there are bound to be mistakes, despite the best efforts of those involved. While certain actions and behaviours should not be tolerated, mistakes can happen." She continued: "Audit . . . findings are sometimes generalized to the government as a whole. This could serve to diminish the trust Canadians have in government and the public service. That would be unfortunate."

"Could" serve? How about "do" serve to diminish trust, especially for right-wing ideologues who largely hate or distrust all government, and when the Auditor-General almost never offers fulsome praise to anybody, even for a job well done?

Nothing brought the public service into deeper and faster disrepute than her report on, and public comments about, the sponsorship scandal -- aided, as we said, by Mr. Martin's hyperventilation.

Public opinion surveys demonstrated thereafter an almost complete collapse in confidence in government and, of course, a sharp decline in support for Paul Martin's Liberals, a decline made worse by his over-the-top reaction to Ms. Fraser's report.

The Martinites are reaping what they sowed, both because they created this inquiry and because their panicky spin-doctoring led to the appointment of Judge Gomery.

When the Prime Minister's Office decided that an inquiry was needed, the first name suggested was former Supreme Court justice Charles Gonthier, a calm, sober, respected, soft-spoken judge not enamoured of being in the spotlight.

Judge Gonthier, who was packing up in Ottawa, said he needed a few days to mull it over. Not good enough, said the PMO. We need a name now. So he declined. So did another judge who asked for time. We have no time, said the PMO. We need a name now.

And so the name of John Gomery turned up, someone who, by the way he has conducted himself, clearly relished the job. Before Christmas, Judge Gomery unburdened himself in media interviews on certain evidence and witnesses he had already heard that left other judges and experienced lawyers slack-jawed.

Quite properly yesterday, lawyers for former prime minister Jean Chrétien and his chief of staff, Jean Pelletier, objected to those comments. They hinted that they might ask the Federal Court to order Judge Gomery's removal from the inquiry. Whether or not an appeal is launched (and it probably won't be), the judge has already damaged his inquiry's credibility.

Judge Gomery said he was "very sorry" if anyone got the impression that he had prejudged evidence. Before Christmas, he had said: "I have the best seat in the house for the best show in town." A show it has certainly been.

The Globe's Daniel Leblanc and Campbell Clark laid out the essence of the sponsorship program's problems a long time ago. Ms. Fraser investigated further, using her powers and staff, then added her own spicy comments.

Obviously, there were serious problems with the program's administration. There might well have been criminal acts. But the whole program amounted to $250-million, only a portion of which was mismanaged or lined pockets.

The way in which everyone has treated this scandal -- from the Prime Minister to the opposition parties to the media to Ms. Fraser to Judge Gomery -- has contributed to what Ms. Fraser described in her last report as "unintended consequences."

jsimpson@globeandmail.ca

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