From 1994 to 2003, the federal government spent over $330 million on sponsorships and special events aimed at increasing Ottawa’s visibility in Quebec. Following Auditor-General Sheila Fraser’s scathing report of fraud and patronage in the program, Quebec Superior Court Justice John Gomery was appointed by Paul Martin to head an independent inquiry in February 2004. The first of two reports of the Gomery Commission was released on November 1, 2005. The second, initially due in mid- December, has been delayed until February 1, 2006.
The sponsorship program was defended by Jean Chrétien as a key element in the pursuit of national unity. This approach reduced to a secretive and publicly funded advertising campaign what was for Quebec a very profound existential issue involving its status as a nation, its collective identity and societal projects, its very place in the world and, broadly, many years of debate and deliberation about the fundamentals of its relationship with the rest of Canada. For those who blame Quebec for this fiasco, or believe that this is simply ”œthe way politics has always been done in Quebec,” consider that the anger such corruption provokes in Quebecers is compounded many times over by the offen- sive assumption that close to 150 years of effort to find a just and acceptable relationship between Quebec and Canada was interpreted as little more than a problem in terms of the ”œexposure” to Canadian symbols ”” that Canada as a ”œbrand” was somehow not seeping into Quebec’s collective consciousness. In short, that the discon- tents of Quebecers were so superficial as to be treatable through the infantile blandishments of commercial adver- tising’s flashy colours and creative slogans.
This is a profound development that has not received sufficient scrutiny. The program itself, notwithstanding the corruption, continues to be defended by Chrétien as a necessary element of national unity. Reducing an essen- tially political question to a marketing campaign, howev- er, explicitly undermines democracy and sidesteps the role of representation in securing the legitimacy of political outcomes. Politics as marketing con- stitutes a dangerous precedent for the future of this country ”” employing public policy with the explicit aim of likening democratic citizenship to the consumption of governmental ”œprod- ucts.” This approach is even more scandalous than the usual nation- building efforts of the central govern- ment that are undertaken to Quebec’s dismay. At least those efforts represent a liberal democratic vision, can be legitimated in the abstract, and claim to empower individuals from coast to coast. While Quebec does not share this vision of political commu- nity in Canada, at least dialogue remains an option. With politics as advertising, individuals are the objects of explicit, condescending treatment, expected to soak up mes- sages as though they have no stand- ing as political agents ”” as citizens.
From the perspective of Quebec, both the logic of the program and the process put in place to rectify its deficiencies reveal the illegitimacy of the federal government’s actions vis-aÌ€- vis Quebec. Indeed, the Gomery Commission has done little to recon- cile the fundamental flaws in Ottawa’s approach to its relations with Quebec.
In terms of substance, the pro- gram’s aims were put in place in lieu of genuine dialogue with Quebec. Following the failed constitutional rounds of the early 1990s and the close referendum result in 1995, the best that the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien could come up with was to stifle any constructive attempts to rec- oncile relations with Quebec. The sponsorship program thus manifests itself as but another feature of a grow- ing list of cynical actions as well as an irresponsible approach to the politics of federalism. Those include the Clarity Act, national standards in the provision of social programs (with or without Quebec’s consent), and a domineering attitude toward use of the federal spending power in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction, all the while refusing to acknowledge the existence of a fiscal imbalance in Canada, even as federal surpluses continue to mount.
In terms of process, the establish- ment of the Gomery Commission is admirable, since political corruption should rightly preoccupy all Canadians. It is not surprising that recent polls show that a solid majority of citizens, including Quebecers, are pleased with the Liberal government’s efforts at addressing the flaws in the machinery of government that led to the scandal in the first place. The hear- ings of the Gomery Commission have been public and have received much media attention. The reputations of various Canadian institutions of almost iconic standing in the country, such as Via Rail, Canada Post, the RCMP, and the Business Development Bank, have been sullied. In this regard, the Gomery Commission will at the very least make Canadians more aware and vigilant about political corruption and patronage, and will perhaps restrain such developments in the future.
However, there also is a general malaise with regards to the Gomery Commission, especially from the perspective of Quebec. This is relat- ed specifically to the feeling that the commission seems to represent an extension of the political ”œspin” com- ing out of the Prime Minister’s Office. Indeed, the report does not go further than what was initially brought to light in the auditor-general’s study. It simply confirms some of the findings made by Sheila Fraser, even though the commission had the means to go fur- ther, knowing full well by then where to search for additional information.
We interpret the scandal as an act of political agency: as an explicit attempt by the Government of Canada to illegitimately ”” the question of its legality will sub- sequently be determined by the courts ”” address the ”œproblem” of Quebec. The Gomery Commission seems to be proceeding as an enterprise whose man- date is to correct systemic flaws in the machinery of government, as though this is but another area of public policy where some tinkering can somehow increase administrative efficiency and trans- parency. As such, it dovetails nicely with the current federal government’s party line that this was the result of a small group of rogue bureaucrats and their private sector clients who exploited loopholes in accountability procedures and filled their pockets. The limited mandate of the Gomery Commission does very little to address some of the larger questions and more profound problems that have emerged from the uncovering of the scandal.
Moreover, the report lays the blame on the inner circle of Jean Chrétien, including pivotal fig- ures such as Alfonso Gagliano and Jean Pelletier, essentially absolving key members of Paul Martin’s entourage, even though the present prime minister sat at the cabinet table when the decision to launch the pro- gram, establishing a $50 million fund for national unity was taken in 1996. He was also vice-president of the Treasury Board for most of its imple- mentation, as well as a high-ranking member of the Quebec caucus. It seems unlikely that he wasn’t aware of the irregularities in the implementa- tion of the program, particularly in terms of channels of accountability.
The involvement of communica- tions agencies associated with Paul Martin, such as BCP and Claude Boulay’s Groupe Everest, have been downplayed by the report. The report even made a point of describing a strong working relationship between the latter agency and Paul Martin, only to note that there was no evi- dence of favouritism or wrongdoing in the context of the sponsorship scandal, despite Groupe Everest’s $67.8 million in contracts. In short, the report managed to demonstrate a lack of substantive evidence yet chose to exonerate Paul Martin and current cabinet ministers entirely, while specifically singling out members of the previous Liberal government as the culprits. While it is difficult to counter such assertions since we lack sufficient evidence, it nevertheless leaves a suspicion that the commis- sion sought purposely not to under- mine the present government.
The general impression left by this exercise is that the Liberal Party remains the only viable party for the promotion of national unity ”” or as Paul Martin constantly reminded us during the last election campaign ”” the bearer of Canadian values. This underlying arrogance no doubt con- tributed to the implementation of the program in the first place, and with the impression that a ”œnew and improved” Liberal Party is in power to redress the ills of the past, the cycle is merely repeating itself ”” open to new potential abuses undertaken in the name of national unity. Consider the recent statement by Paul Martin in which he claimed that the federal government deems it legitimate to intervene in provincial jurisdictions if it believes national unity is at stake. Everything can be construed as being in the ”œnational interest.” The notion that this arbitrary use of power at the federal level might be questioned as illegitimate was not adequately addressed through this scandal, and the Liberal Party continues to have a free hand to act unchecked in the promotion of national unity as it sees fit ”” without any consultation or ethic of constraint. On the very issue with which Quebec has historically taken the Liberal Party to task, the report’s conclusions serve only to perpetuate the status quo, a worrying devel- opment for those who were hoping this scandal might spark a renewal in how the Liberal Party conducts its rela- tions with Quebec.
Indeed, the second part of the Gomery report includes various consultative exercises for generating recommenda- tions that could be plucked right out of a basic text on the policy process. Several of those selected to make recommenda- tions have been members of Prime Minister’s Office in vari- ous capacities, including Marc Lalonde, Donald Savoie, Paul Tellier and others. Moreover, allowing the government to see the report prior to the other parties in the house reinforces the impression that the com- mission is serving the interests of the government, and it is compounded by the opportune delay in the proposed release of Gomery’s second (and final) report, effectively allowing Prime Minister Martin to push back his promised elec- tion call.
By framing the issues in terms of a generic, systemic problem to be resolved through adjustments to administrative procedures, the com- mission’s analysis and recommendations will only diffuse the blame. This will not satisfy Quebec’s deeper con- cerns about the scandal, nor should it sit well with other Canadians, whose appeasement is the primary object of this exercise. In effect the federal gov- ernment, in a somewhat covert fash- ion, is once again employing the subtle manipulation of majority nationalism to address a problem that essentially concerns Quebec.
Federal advertising campaigns that shamelessly peddle Canadian symbols in an attempt to achieve the government’s political objectives in Quebec are insulting, not only to Quebecers but to all Canadians. Nor is the highly publicized federal attempt to ”œclean house” and curb government corruption nearly enough. Neither the insulting nor the worthy campaign fundamentally addresses the continuing bitterness and alienation felt by Quebec throughout this charade.
Finally, it must be pointed out that the limited mandate of the Gomery Commission was dictated by the prime minister himself. While this may seem innocuous enough, it nev- ertheless furthers the impression that the prime minister somehow knew the extent of culpability that could come out of this ordeal and was satis- fied that no direct evidence could link him to the corruption. For example, when the commissioners sought to dig deeper into the potential involvement of Earnscliffe, an Ottawa lobbying and polling firm, the govern- ment stepped in to halt inquiries, claiming that the mandate was limited to spon- sorship and advertising activi- ties and excluded irregularities in contracts for public opinion research.
We propose that the man- dates of future inquiries be delineated by a wider array of interested parties ”” perhaps including bi-partisan input and independent offices such as the auditor-general and the ethics commissioner. We are disap- pointed by the fact that the Prime Minister’s Office had too much of a say in establishing the parameters of this commis- sion. Whether or not this directly affected the substance of the final report, we believe, is at least open to debate and further questions.