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Mr. Mulroney had options

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

'You had an option, sir. You could have done better."

With those words, during a televised debate in the 1984 federal election campaign, Brian Mulroney issued one of the most famous and withering moral judgments in Canadian political history. Liberal Leader John Turner had refused after succeeding Pierre Trudeau as Prime Minister to reverse a raft of patronage appointments, and even added more of his own. Mr. Turner said he had no choice; that these appointments had been part of an agreement with Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Mulroney demanded a higher standard, and in so doing helped win his party the first of two majority governments.

His words echo forward a quarter century. Mr. Mulroney himself had many options in how he conducted himself after leaving the Prime Minister's office in 1993. In his testimony before the Oliphant Commission over the past week, it was laid plain that - when it came to his relationship with Karlheinz Schreiber - he almost unfailingly chose the wrong one.

Mr. Mulroney had an option, knowing the dubious manner in which Mr. Schreiber sprinkled money around Ottawa on behalf of his lobbying clients, to refuse to even consider doing business with him. Instead, he chose to enter into an arrangement in which, by his account, he promoted armoured vehicles made by Mr. Schreiber's client Thyssen AG to international leaders. (Mr. Schreiber has claimed that, in fact, Mr. Mulroney was enlisted to promote the vehicles to the Government of Canada.)

Mr. Mulroney had an option, when Mr. Schreiber met him in a hotel room and handed him an envelope filled with at least $75,000 in $1,000 bills - money he told the Oliphant Commission he had never asked for or expected - to turn it down. He appears to have at least considered this option, since by his own admission he hesitated before accepting the money. But instead, he took it and stashed it in a safety deposit box, then met with Mr. Schreiber twice more to accept payments the same way. The meagre explanation he offered the inquiry for this decision was that he was between jobs at the time, and did not have an adequate support staff. (He overlooked the fact that by the time he received the final payment, in late 1994, he was comfortably ensconced in his new job as a partner at Ogilvy Renault.)

Mr. Mulroney had an option, when being questioned by government lawyers during the 1996 libel lawsuit that netted him a settlement worth $2.1-million in public funds, to be forthright about his relationship with Mr. Schreiber. Instead, he claimed the two had only met for "a cup of coffee...once or twice."

Mr. Mulroney had an option, after receiving the payments, to promptly declare them on his taxes. Instead, he waited until 2000 - six years later - to do so.

Many of these poor decisions have been known for some time. But this week's testimony revealed yet another option that would have been better than the one he chose. It emerged that when he finally declared the payments, it was negotiated with the Canada Revenue Agency that Mr. Mulroney would pay taxes on only half the amount he said he had received.

Mr. Justice Jeffrey Oliphant, the chair of the ongoing inquiry, seemed understandably puzzled. If Mr. Mulroney had paid the taxes when he received the money, he would have declared income of $225,000. But when he made a voluntary declaration some years later, he paid taxes on only $112,500.

Mr. Mulroney more or less pleaded ignorance, laying it all at the feet of his tax lawyer, Wilfrid Lefebvre. The former prime minister stoutly asserted that he had not deducted expenses to which he says he would have been entitled. The lawyer representing him at the commission, Guy Pratte, argued that the revenue officials knew he was paying on just part of his income. Since they had no problem, why should anyone else?

Mr. Mulroney is a former prime minister of Canada. He made a voluntary declaration on his taxes, an amnesty procedure available to those who fail to file proper returns. He had received cash from a man whom he knew, by the time the payments were finally disclosed, to have been involved with alleged corruption.

Mr. Mulroney had an option: He could have instructed his tax lawyer to pay on the full amount he received from Mr. Schreiber - especially given the curious circumstances surrounding the payments and the lapsed years before they were declared as income. Instead, he chose to pay taxes on just half the amount, because that was all that was demanded of him.

On his tax arrangement and many other matters, Mr. Mulroney had an option in his appearances before the Oliphant Commission do his level best to set the record straight. Instead, he often fell back on a combination of obfuscation and self-pity epitomized by his explanation for that 1996 testimony. He did not tell the lawyers about the payments, he said, because they did not ask about the payments - even though they had no other way of knowing about them. "I know these people want to kill me ... They want to destroy my family," he said. "What I'm trying to do is to respond carefully and thoughtfully to the questions that are asked."

If his aim over the past week was to prove that he conducted himself in the manner befitting a former prime minister, Mr. Mulroney fell short. But then, having made the wrong choice so many times previously, perhaps it was too late for that - too late to prove his good name, as he insisted he wanted to do at the inquiry he himself once requested.

"You had an option, sir," he once said in a moment of ethical clarity. Mr. Mulroney, too, had options. He could have done so much better.

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