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CANADA 2002 Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

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Paul Knox PAUL

Hostage to the events of the week

It's a matter of interpretation

G8 a virtual affair

Silly season at the G8

A bizarre ambassador for African aid

The Irish in U.S. altruism

The wonderful world of globo-wonkery: It's all in the acronyms

It's the money, dummy

And this guy's on our side

And this guy's on our side

By PAUL KNOX, Globe and Mail Update

It's time to start looking at the characters who'll be clumping around the Rocky Mountains this month as Canada plays host to the Group of Eight summit of leading industrial nations. Who better to start with than Mr. Conflict-of-Interest himself, Silvio Berlusconi?

Mr. Berlusconi has been prime minister of Italy since leading a centre-right coalition to an election victory a year ago. But the government in Rome is one of his lesser holdings. He owns or controls all three of the country's private television stations, a major publishing company, Italy's biggest financial-services firm and a major soccer team. A rough parallel would be if Israel Asper served as prime minister while controlling not only media giant CanWest Global Communications Corp. but also the CTV television network, the Montreal Canadiens and half of the Royal Bank of Canada.

That would be novel, to say the least. But what if such a prime minister were also under indictment in a case in which foreign documents were crucial, and his supporters in parliament passed a law making it more difficult to collect such evidence? That, incredibly, is just part of the record of Mr. Berlusconi's government.

Mr. Berlusconi and his Mediaset business empire have been embroiled in criminal legal trials since well before his election. (He says they are part of a vendetta against him by left-wing magistrates and politicians.) One involves allegations that judges in Rome were bribed with money transferred from Swiss bank accounts. Mr. Berlusconi's parliamentary majority passed a law in October saying foreign evidence must be acquired under onerous rules of procedure to be admissible in Italian courts. Amazingly, one of the lawyers defending Mr. Berlusconi in the bribery case also chaired the parliamentary judicial affairs committee that developed the legislation.

Next, Mr. Berlusconi's justice minister tried to yank the judge presiding over the judge-bribing trial off the case. He was forced to back down on that one. But Mr. Berlusconi has succeeded elsewhere. Another law (enacted before the U.S. Enron debacle) decriminalized accounting fraud -- another offence with which Mr. Berlusconi had been charged. (That one was promoted by some legislators as -- you guessed it -- a sorely needed measure to lure investors to Italy.)

At the same time, Mr. Berlusconi moved to address public concern about the conflict of interest surrounding his status as the country's largest media proprietor.

Not, of course, by selling off his stake, or putting his holdings into a blind trust, or anything like that. No, what his supporters did was propose a law that would allow high office-holders to own companies as long as they don't actually run them. In a complete mockery of the principle of separation of powers, violators would be judged not in the courts but by parliament.

The man who presides over this caricature of public probity will be welcomed to the G8 meeting and treated as a serious participant in discussions about global affairs. How sad. And what a cautionary tale for Canadians about the importance of nipping abuses of power in the bud.

Would we stand for this kind of thing? I don't think so -- not in my lifetime, anyway.

I wish I could say that without the qualifiers. But then I look at the way Jean Chrétien handles ethical concerns, at his cavalier treatment of MPs, at the erosion of their stature in politics, at our fractured opposition, at the comparatively low level of public outrage about all of the foregoing -- and I can't.

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