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Where was the PMO or PCO seven months ago?

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Is this credible?

Can we imagine that letters sent seven months ago to Prime Minister Stephen Harper from Karlheinz Schreiber were not seen by the Prime Minister until this month?

It's a critical question on the Mulroney file. If the opposition can make headway on allegations of an attempted cover-up, the ruling Conservatives will face their biggest crisis.

Mr. Harper has the reputation of being one of the most meddlesome micromanagers that the nation's capital has ever seen. We've heard how everything passes through his office, how no one dares make a big call without his knowledge.

The letters addressed to Mr. Harper that arrived in March contained information that last week prompted him to launch an independent probe - the allegation that Brian Mulroney discussed a financial agreement with Mr. Schreiber two days before his resignation as prime minister.

The opposition wants us to believe that the government deliberately kept news of the correspondence hidden in the hope that the issue would go away.

Sandra Buckler, Mr. Harper's communications chief, has explained that "Mr. Schreiber's letter was processed by the Privy Council Office and was not forwarded to the Prime Minister's Office."

To be sure, many letters addressed to the Prime Minister never reach his eyes. But a letter on something as serious as the Mulroney-Schreiber file? It's hard to imagine how that wouldn't have set off alarm bells.

This is the point Opposition Leader Stéphane Dion, who alleges a cover-up, has been quick to pounce on. "Are we now expected to believe these shocking allegations were sent to the Prime Minister and neither he nor his staff did anything about them? That would be a gross breach of duty and portray an appalling lack of leadership."

There is, however, precedent for something like it - involving Mr. Dion's old boss, Jean Chrétien.

On the Airbus case, the infamous letter from the Justice Department to Swiss government authorities containing allegations of illegalities by Brian Mulroney was sent without Mr. Chrétien's apparent knowledge. Mr. Chrétien insists to this day that he wasn't informed until after the fact.

In that case we had a deadly serious outgoing allegation, in the Harper case an equally serious incoming one. Mr. Harper will face many questions when the Commons reopens tomorrow. If, as Ms. Buckler claims, the correspondence didn't reach him, was he informed at least of its existence, or of anything that was in it? If only the Privy Council Office saw the letters what then has this office been doing with them for the past seven months? Just letting them lie there?

One government spokesperson said yesterday that because the matter involved only a civil suit between Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Mulroney, the PCO wouldn't have thought it necessary to forward the correspondence. That seems like a stretch. Mr. Harper will likely need a better explanation than that.

In announcing the pending appointment of an independent adviser on the file, he has made a smart move. He has distanced himself from a former PM who is still disliked by the broad swath of Canadians. Although prime minister Paul Martin was hurt by his calling of the Gomery inquiry, it needs to be remembered that he had been a senior figure in the Chrétien government. Stephen Harper had no such role in the Mulroney stewardship.

Mr. Harper could even gain political points by going hard after Mr. Mulroney. But only if he gets around the question of the seven-month delay. It's a potentially explosive question, one that gives the opposition an opportunity to turn the tide for the first time since Mr. Dion became Liberal Leader.

Addendum

In a column Saturday, Christie Blatchford wrote that I had referred to General Rick Hillier in my Thursday column as the Sun King. Actually those references were to Prime Minister Harper and were a poke at him, not Gen. Hillier. That said, I am flattered that my old friend saw fit to devote yet another entire column to my deviant musings.

lmartin@globeandmail.com

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