Prime Minister Stephen Harper acted swiftly, wisely and brutally. After all, he had no choice but to eat his words.
Eight days ago, Mr. Harper warned the opposition against pestering him to open an inquiry into allegations against former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Yesterday, he no longer ruled out that possibility.
By asking a yet-to-be-named independent third party to advise him on new allegations from Karlheinz Schreiber, Mr. Harper cut adrift the former prime minister and made it possible that the so-called Airbus affair would be reopened years after it was considered closed.
No longer will the Conservatives defend Mr. Mulroney in the Commons, as they did before the one-week parliamentary break and as the former prime minister likely expected they would continue to do.
Mr. Harper made clear he had a) not discussed his decision with Mr. Mulroney, b) instructed everyone in his party to have no dealings with the former prime minister.
That stricture would require someone as close to Mr. Mulroney as Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate and Mr. Mulroney's Ottawa mouthpiece since he left office, not to talk to her friend.
This is to say nothing of other Mulroney friends of more recent vintage.
Mr. Harper is not one to admit uncertainty. But he did yesterday, saying he was not sure how to act following yet more allegations, reported in The Globe and Mail, about Mr. Schreiber's dealings with Mr. Mulroney, including meetings while Mr. Mulroney was prime minister.
That uncertainty, given Mr. Schreiber's ongoing suit against Mr. Mulroney and the previous Liberal government's settlement with the prime minister, led Mr. Harper to decide, correctly, that he needed external advice. Having asked for it, he will be obliged to take it.
Any sensible third-party would reject out of hand a parliamentary inquiry that would become a circus, lynching and generalized shambles. A judicial inquiry would go on forever, cost a bomb, and possibly conflict with the lawsuit.
Most likely, the third party will recommend either a special investigator with powers, or that the police re-open the file and start investigating again.
Mr. Harper changed something else yesterday: media coverage. Only The Globe and Mail and CBC had been pursuing the story; the other media had either done very little with the story or deliberately ignored it, because they did not wish to credit rivals or lacked the money or guts to take it on. Now, the Prime Minister's decision makes it a story no media can ignore.
What has changed? Mr. Mulroney denied as prime minister he had had any dealings with the expatriate German. Mr. Schreiber in an affidavit says otherwise. He met Mr. Mulroney at the prime minister's summer residence at Harrington Lake on June 23, 1993, and that meeting has been confirmed by a Mulroney aide.
A photograph on the front page of The Globe and Mail yesterday showed another meeting between the two men in the prime minister's office. That must have come late in Mr. Mulroney's time as prime minister, since one participant was David McLaughlin, who served as deputy chief of staff toward the end of Mr. Mulroney's time in office.
Mr. Harper insisted he acted to defend the integrity of the office of the prime minister. He also acted to defend the Conservative Party he leads, since the last thing Mr. Harper wants or needs is to stand accused of stonewalling investigations into Mr. Schreiber's troubling allegations against Mr. Mulroney.
What Mr. Harper, and especially the Department of Justice, must be most alarmed about are the $300,000 in payments Mr. Schreiber says he made to Mr. Mulroney after handing over the money on three separate occasions. These payments form part of a lawsuit launched by Mr. Schreiber, who claims Mr. Mulroney never did anything for the money. Obviously, these are allegations, not proven facts.
Indeed, Mr. Schreiber is for Brian Mulroney (who unlike Conrad Black has never been charged with or convicted of a crime) what fraudster David Radler was to his old friend and business partner Mr. Black: a sleazy character with a lot of money, facing big trouble (jail time for Mr. Radler; extradition for Mr. Schreiber), an untrustworthy witness, but nonetheless someone who knew a lot and, for entirely self-centred reasons, wanted to talk.
These payments, reported somewhat later for tax purposes by Mr. Mulroney, were not known to the Justice Department or the RCMP at the time of their initial considerations into alleged payoffs for the Airbus contract entered into by Air Canada. Mr. Mulroney sued the government and settled for $2.1-million and an apology.
Two issues to be examined must therefore be whether the payments should cause the police to investigate, and whether the government should consider eventually reopening the $2.1-million settlement with Mr. Mulroney. Anything less would look like a whitewash.
Stephen Harper, as a young Conservative aide in the early 1990s, left the party in disappointment over Mr. Mulroney's leadership. He then got elected as a Reform MP, and regularly chastised the prime minister.
Then, as time passed, Mr. Harper mellowed. He became the leader of the Conservative Party, followed the Mulroney strategy for making the party acceptable in Quebec, praised much of Mr. Mulroney's legacy, and invited Mr. Mulroney and his family to Harrington Lake.
The two parted company yesterday.