In four recent appearances, Karlheinz Schreiber, shifty and unfocused, was consistently able to get the better of Parliament's ethics committee. So it was inevitable that Brian Mulroney, a quick-witted former prime minister who excels in the public spotlight, would skate circles around the same committee. With the odd exception -- notably the Bloc Québécois's Serge Ménard and the NDP's Joe Comartin -- MPs again proved woefully out of their depth.
As a result, the public's understanding of Mr. Mulroney's relationship with Mr. Schreiber has advanced little. Other than acknowledging his serial bad judgment in accepting cash payments from Mr. Schreiber and divulging the curious detail that the cash (which he says totalled $225,000 rather than $300,000) was stored in safety deposit boxes, Mr. Mulroney mostly succeeded in turning yesterday's hearing into a four-hour attack on the German-Canadian businessman's credibility. Time and again, he demonstrated how often Mr. Schreiber's story has changed - reading from previous statements (many taken under oath) in which Mr. Schreiber extolled the integrity of the man he now accuses of behaving scandalously.
Mr. Mulroney's central message - that Mr. Schreiber is a rogue who has exploited public interest in his dealings with the former prime minister to avoid extradition to Germany to face criminal charges - is difficult to refute. But this is hardly news. And what Mr. Mulroney never explained is why Mr. Schreiber's fawning earlier statements should be taken as gospel and his later ones dismissed as scurrilous lies.
What emerges is something of a stalemate. Mr. Schreiber suggests a business relationship was struck while Mr. Mulroney was still in office and that Mr. Mulroney made unfulfilled promises to exert influence with his successor, and darkly implies ill-gotten gains from the 1988 Airbus deal. Mr. Mulroney denies all of it. So we are left with the word of a man who constantly changes stories against that of another who has, until yesterday's hearing, behaved like someone with something to hide.
For many, the temptation may be to throw up their hands and move on. This saga unfolded long ago, and it is painful and embarrassing to watch the character of a former prime minister on trial. But there are important issues at stake. Clearer answers are needed on the purpose behind the payments, and Mr. Mulroney's bizarre behaviour in receiving them, including his acceptance of cash, his failure to report them until years later and his apparent lack of records. Even now, on reflection, he admits to an error in judgment in accepting the cash but not in initially failing to report it; in fact, he allowed yesterday that he wasn't sure he would have set the record straight with Revenue Canada if Mr. Schreiber hadn't been criminally charged. And much more information is needed on a subject the committee barely touched: Mr. Schreiber's relationship with Mr. Mulroney from 1983, when he may have helped bankroll his ascent to the Conservative leadership, through his nine years in office.
It is obvious that these answers will not come from Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Schreiber alone. Nor will they come in front of the ethics committee. Other witnesses, those who were close to the two key players both during the Mulroney government and after, must be brought before people capable of extracting information from them. That's why the need for a public inquiry, or at least a special investigator with a mandate to report publicly, is stronger than ever.