The Canadian chattering class was abuzz last week after Prime Minister Harper appointed David Johnston, the president of the University of Waterloo, to determine the parameters of a public inquiry into what is being labelled the Mulroney-Schreiber Affair. We have been here before. When the Liberal government, which succeeded Mulroney, charged that Mulroney had received cash for steering Air Canada's purchase of new jets to Europe's Airbus Industries, Mulroney launched a lawsuit, claiming that the government had besmirched his good name. The government eventually settled with Mulroney out of court for $2.1 million.
But, in the last four years, certain facts have come to light. First, Mulroney did receive $300,000 from Karlheinz Schreiber -- in cash, in three installments, in envelopes, in hotel rooms. Second, Mulroney was delinquent in paying taxes on that income, something he has since rectified. And, third, as the CBC program The Fifth Estate has verified, that money was Airbus money, which had been deposited in a Swiss account in Schreiber's name. Whether Mulroney knew about the source of the money is not known.
After initially stonewalling opposition calls for an inquiry, Harper decided to reverse himself -- after Mulroney called for an inquiry, and after Schreiber claimed that he had sent a letter to Harper's office, charging that he and Mulroney had discussed the payments two days before Mulroney left office -- a letter which Harper says he never saw.
Mr. Schreiber is quite a piece of work. An acknowledged arms dealer as well as passenger plane salesman, he has had ties to other politicians, most notably Marc Lalonde, Pierre Trudeau's political lieutenant. He would appear to have a talent for ingratiating himself with the powers that be -- whatever their political stripe. He has been ordered to return to Germany, where he faces charges of fraud and tax evasion. It is in his self interest -- something he has promoted quite successfully -- to drag Mulroney into the mess in which he now finds himself.
The problem is that Mulroney, who claimed in his libel suit that "he had never had any dealings" with Schreiber, clearly misrepresented the situation -- which reminds Canadians that, before he left office, they regularly referred to Mr. Mulroney as "Lyin' Brian." More than that, the whole affair puts Mr. Harper in an awkward position. In his Reform Party days, he referred to Mr. Mulroney as the enemy. But since being elected prime minister, Harper has arranged a rapprochement with Mulroney and his supporters in the party. Some observers see Mulroney's influence in the appointment of Michel Fortier to Harper's cabinet. The fact is, as Andrew Coyne observed in Macleans last week, " . . . Harper is tied to Mulroney, as Mulroney is tied to Schreiber, not by any opposition insinuations or press vendettas, but by their own appalling lapses of judgment."
An inquiry may find that Mr. Mulroney did nothing illegal. He is, first and foremost, a very smart lawyer; and one assumes that he would do nothing to put himself in legal jeopardy. However, with the mounting evidence of income inequality in this country, one can understand why Canadians might be more than miffed to discover that another one of their leaders was particularly adept at feathering his nest. At the very least, the inquiry should follow the money -- as difficult, and as embarrassing as that might be.