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Commentary

We need more than an investigation into an investigation

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

In November of 2003, three days after William Kaplan broke the story of Karlheinz Schreiber's cash payments to Brian Mulroney in this newspaper, I happened to meet Stephen Harper in Victoria. The pain and bewilderment on his face when -- before we had even sat down -- he asked what he should say publicly suggests The Globe and Mail had not "buried the lead" -- as some have contended in explaining why the astonishing news quickly fizzled out.

I demurred from offering any advice, of course. And shortly thereafter, having given a sworn statement to the RCMP about one of the three projects in the so-called Airbus affair with which I had been involved as chief of staff to Mr. Mulroney, I agreed to contribute an afterword to Mr. Kaplan's book. That book, too, quickly disappeared from the radar screen.

Here's why.

With the National Post's having killed what would have been an extraordinary scoop, Mr. Kaplan's book ended up being ignored by most CanWest newspapers. In Quebec, Mr. Mulroney has always enjoyed the benefit of the doubt, as well as the support of influential friends in command of major chunks of the media. In Ottawa, many reporters were looking for reasons not to write about the book, having been embarrassed that Mr. Kaplan, a lawyer, had broken a story that, by inference, made them out to have been duped when the Chrétien government forked over $2.1-million to settle Mr. Mulroney's libel suit.

And to top it off, Mr. Kaplan was even ignored by CBC programs that make it a practice to interview Canadian authors - perhaps because of misplaced sympathy for the second target of his book, journalist Stevie Cameron, who, it was later confirmed, had been a confidential informant in the RCMP's investigation.

How, then, can we explain the resurgence of interest in this troubling story that finally gave Mr. Harper no option but to act late yesterday afternoon?

In part, it was due to the emergence of new revelations and allegations, for which we are indebted to the skilled journalists and courageous decision-makers at The Globe and the CBC. More important, the Liberals - once rumoured to have agreed not to ask questions about the affair in the House of Commons if the Conservatives stayed mum on Paul Martin's skeletons - now see an opportunity for political gain.

In retrospect, given my current role, I don't for a minute regret not having cautioned Mr. Harper about getting too close to Mr. Mulroney. But I wish I had referred him to the column I wrote on Airbus after the settlement of Mr. Mulroney's lawsuit. In it, I argued in favour of British Columbia's system of appointing special prosecutors to investigate and recommend the laying of charges in high-profile cases. The selection of an outside counsel by a public servant keeps politics out of the process and ensures that justice is not only done, but is seen to be done. The Airbus investigation, by contrast, has been politicized and tainted from the get-go.

In 2005, as I've also argued in these pages, Paul Martin could have spared himself, and the Liberal Party, considerable grief had he appointed a special prosecutor to look into the income trusts leak. Happily, in the election campaign that year, Mr. Harper promised to move forward with that function, and the government has now enacted it into law.

With a minority government in office, referral of the Airbus matter to a parliamentary committee - as advocated by the NDP - would inevitably descend into rank partisanship. And the judicial inquiry proposed by the Liberals would smear reputations on a daily basis, whatever the ultimate findings of the committee.

Twenty million dollars in commissions were paid on the sale of Airbus planes to Air Canada, and half that amount was distributed in Canada. In light of the four years that Mr. Harper has had to consider these matters since they first came to his attention, there was no need to set up an investigation into an investigation, or to restrict that investigation to the new revelations that have emerged.

The appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the entire affair is the least that Canadians could have expected, and the least that they should now demand.

nspector@globeandmail.com

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