Publication bans on explosive cases don't mean much if you're outside the country, but media outside a country often lack enough interested readers to care. The blogosphere is changing that - and now we're seeing that change in Canada over an explosive political issue. Captain's Quarters:
"A political scandal involving the Public Works Ministry, a government effort called the Sponsorship Program, and allegations of corruption in the ruling Liberal Party has Canada abuzz with rumors of payoffs, Mob ties, and snap elections. For the last two years, Canadian politics has been gripped by the so-called “sponsorship scandal” – tens of millions of dollars in government contracts which were funneled into advertizing firms closely connected with the Liberal government for little or no work, but with shadowy rumours that much of the money found its way back into Liberal coffers."
A snap election is indeed possible. The Liberals have some big choices ahead of them, and so do the other political parties - and somehow, blogs look set to be right in the middle of it all. Time for a little bit of background from a Canadian, so our American readers can understand exactly what's going on. There are a few key wrinkles here that won't be obvious otherwise.
An important note the Captain missed - the $250 million Sponsorship Program was concentrated in Quebec, where it was used to undermine the separatist Bloc Quebecois. I'll note for the record that I don't really have an issue with that aspect of it, though the Bloc sure does; they're Canada's 3rd largest federal party. The rest of Canada probably wouldn't care either, expect that [a] over $100 million of those funds were given out to Liberal Party friends for what was literally no work; and [b] rumours persist that a lot of those tax dollars found their way back to the Liberal Party's coffers via kickbacks from funding recipients.
Hence AdScam. For our U.S. readers, a good rule of thumb is that anything to do with Canada (population, economy, etc.) is multiplied by 10 to get an equivalent American scale. As you can see, we're talking significant dollars here.
Prime Minister Paul Martin, himself a Liberal, appointed the Gomery Commission to investigate these charges and determine whether to bring charges against government officials for corruption and malfeasance.
The amount kicked back to the Liberal Party is not yet clear, but should be traceable in principle given election finance disclosure requirements. Unless, of course, it turns out that those were broken too.
- As Captain's Quarters notes, see the blog Small Dead Animals: The Roadkill Diaries for some excellent background on the case.
- Wikipedia's entry is also quite good.
- SDA:TRD also has a roundup of reactions from the Canadian blogosphere.
- Though I have to say, the ultimate link roundup has to be the one at Bound by Gravity.
The Gomery Commission's inquiry is ongoing, but some of their efforts are under a publication ban. Back to Captain's Quarters:
"Most of the testimony heard by the Commission has been public, but Judge Gomery has decided to create a publication ban on the testimony of three key witnesses: Jean Brault, president of the ad agency Groupaction, Charles Guité, an officer of the Public Works ministry who worked on the Sponsorship Program, and Paul Coffin, president of the ad agency Coffin Communications.
That's because these individuals are on trial. Their testimony is under publication ban in order to allow them to testify, without prejudicing their ongoing trial. At least, that's the idea. This has been done before in Canada, most notably in the trial of serial killers Paul Bernanrdo and Karla Homolka where photos, movies et. al. of the young girls they raped and murdered were put under ban to spare the victims' families. It's considered legal here, for a series of reasons that I won't get into. Let's just accept that it's possible to order a publication ban on certain kinds of quasi-judicial proceedings here in Canada.
This is where the blogs come in. This is also where some pretty heavy-duty political calculations come in. Captain's Quarters:
"The potential damage of their testimony has so unnerved the Liberal Party that they have reportedly started working towards a snap election so that they will not have to face the voters once the facts surface from the record."
The scandal was a factor in the 2004 Federal election, too, and probably contributed to the Liberal Party's loss of their majority government. They're currently in power by the thinnest of margins [135 seats, now down to 132] (Hat Tips: readers Carleton Alum & Canadian Conservative). Just to create a tie, the NDP [Canada's socialist party, 19 seats] and 2 independents must support the Liberals, since the Conservative Party [99 seats] and seperatist Bloc Quebecois [54 seats] can vote against to create a 153-153 tie. The Speaker of the House, a Liberal, would then vote if necessay to break the tie - but in this case, it may not be necessary since the No-Confidence motion would have already failed to pass. See below for more details re: how all this works.
This makes for a pretty unstable government, because if the major opposition parties plus right-wing and electorally secure independent MP Chuck Cadman ever see an advantage in bringing down the government - it's gone.
A damning report from the Gomery Commission that showed massive corruption at the Liberal Party's highest levels would be a pretty opportune time for everybody, don't you think?
So far, the publication ban has muted coverage of the scandal, and given the Liberal Party of Canada the ability to "create their own trial scene". They even had the power to call a snap election before any reports could be released with the juicy details - something they recently threatened to do over the gay marriage issue.
Now, all that is changing. Enter the blogosphere.
Enter Captain's Quarters, a Minnestoa-based blog with a friend in the right place. The Captain has just published the gist of a key witness' testimony re: the Liberal Party of Canada's massive political corruption operation, payoffs, rumoured Mob ties, and all. Captain's Quarters is under no obligation to respect a Canadian legal ruling about Brault's testimony, and once it's out, anyone can link to it. Enter NealeNews.com, self-consciously patterned after The Drudge Report (vid. Outside the Beltway).
Enter, too, a whole swarm of Canadian and American blogs. Under normal circumstances, few Americans would care. These aren't normal circumstances, however, and when your enemy stumbles, it's news. This cross-border interest is driven in part by policies and casual anti-Americanism that have made the Liberal Party of Canada an enemy target to half of America's political spectrum (not to mention a few monied interests associated with the other half).
If you're a Liberal, that fact is very bad news.
I expect persecution and even prosecution of some Canadian bloggers by the Canadian government. The people who brought us the election gag law that prevents groups other than political parties from advertising during elections can be expected to remain true to form. As long as U.S. blogs are publishing the details, people can't be faulted for pointing to them - and CTV News in Toronto is already driving traffic to Captain's Quarters.
Which means that as long as there are willing leakers, the publication ban is almost meaningless.
Once that blog-driven dynamic starts picking up momentum, the Liberal Party of Canada will have lost control over the staging of their trial and the timing of their political calculations. Those are pretty big losses, to say the least. They will force some big decisions from the Liberals very soon, about which more later.
So what made a politician like Paul Martin ask for this kind of grief in the first place? As is so often the case, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
"Prime Minister Paul Martin, himself a Liberal, appointed the Gomery Commission to investigate these charges and determine whether to bring charges against government officials for corruption and malfeasance. (See the blog Small Dead Animals for some excellent background on the case.)"
Paul Martin was a senior official in the Liberal government - in fact, he was the Finance Minister for most of Prime Minister Chretien's tenure (think Clinton's tenure, plus most of W.'s first tenure).
So why would Martin be so interested in a financial inquiry now that he's Prime Minister?
The root of it is that Paul Martin had been nursing leadership ambitions for a long time, and Canada has no term limits for Prime Ministers. Jean Chretien needed Martin in order to keep the confidence of Canada's business sector, but he also distrusted him - and for various reasons, the Martin and Chretien factions of the Liberal Party have disliked each other for a long time. Then came Martin's stealth takeover of the party, which finally brought the issue to a head in 2003. PM Chretien was forced to choose between stepping down and calling a party leadership convention, or having one forced and being voted out. He stepped down, and the results were predictable.
With Paul Martin now sitting as the elected leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and the Liberal Party sitting with a majority of seats in Parliament, Paul Martin was now Prime Minister.
That's right. He was automatically Prime Minister. Without an election. Parliamentary systems can work that way.
Back to Martin, who now had the job he had always wanted. He also had a LOT of enemies within his own party, however... and an ace card, of sorts. You see, most of his high profile party enemies and flacks were very close to PM Chretien. Which meant they were eyes-deep in the $100+ million Sponsorship Scandal.
Canadians knew that Martin and PM Chretien never got along, and that the monies were spent by ministries outside the Finance Minister's direct control. The only thing that could have linked him into the scandal would be participation in a cover-up. So he listened to an old political adage, and "hung a lantern on his problem." As Hardball author and TV host Chris Mathhews notes:
"It is always better to create your own trial scene than to let someone else rig one up."
Actually, holding the inquiry offered Martin the prospect of a doubble-whammy:  distancing Martin from the scandal through forthright action now that he was in charge; and  letting him fry a lot of bigwigs in the party who were his political enemies anyway.
In Canada's 2004 Federal Election, this approach seemed to work. The scandal's impact was felt, but it was contained. An ideologically sympathetic media also did their bit, of course. It was a dirty campaign by the Liberals in all respects - but hey, that's politics.
Which brings us to Prime Minister Martin's current high-stakes decisions.
Had Paul Martin and the Liberals won a majority government in 2004, there is no mechanism for accountability in Canadian politics. The inquiry would have been ended early, with votes forced through in Parliament on a party line basis as necessary. The media would dutifully highlight the "inconclusive" findings, the brouhaha would fade with the minor punishment of some convenient scapegoats, and the issue would almost certainly be a non-starter by 2008-2009.
Unfortunately for the Liberals, they didn't win 155 or more seats in 2004. Which means the scandal is still with them - and like some 'B' movie blob monster, it may be growing beyond their ability to contain.
The publication of Brault's testimony by Captain's Quarters has to be seen and understood in this light. The blogosphere is about to face its first big Canadian test.
As I noted above, I fully expect legal harassment and prosecution of some Canadian bloggers for breaking the publication ban if the leaks continue. That's a given, and it may already be in progress. Since the American blogosphere will keep covering it amidst today's polarized Canadian-U.S. relationship, however, it really won't matter. This cat is truly out of the bag. Which brings us to the Liberal Party's choices:
- Snap election. The Liberal Party can call a snap election very soon, hoping to attack the Conservative Party with an even stronger dirty-tricks campaign. The goal is to win a majority before any more incriminating details leak out, or the scandal blows completely out of control a la Dan Rather, Trent Lott, Eason Jordan, et. al. The anti-American card would certainly be played in this scenario, as part of the Liberals' ongoing efforts to cast the Conservative Party as "un-Canadian". The risk is that if the Liberals don't win a majority, they're right back where they started - with an unstable minority government, an even more hostile United States to the south, a scandal report still pending, and an even more enraged opposition.
- Stick to the Plan. Paul Martin can decide to ride this out, gambling that if the report comes out and he indicts enough of his enemies, he can put enough distance between himself and his Party to convince enough people that he has taken action to clean up the mess. "You may not trust my party," he'd be saying, "but look - you can trust me."
This is not completely far-fetched. It could work, especially given a Canadian media corps who generally dislike the Conservative Party and treat them accordingly. The risk, on the other hand, is a 'perfect storm' scenario: the revelations become very noxious, the Liberals lose any control of their dissemination and timing thanks to blogs et. al. circumventing the bans, Martin can't indict anyone yet becuase the formal report isn't out, and it becomes impossible for Canadian voters to stomach a continued mandate for the party. Once that become clear, a No-Confidence motion in Parliament forces an election and it's curtains. The socialist NDP would probably prefer not to do that, because the Conservatives would likely form a government if the Liberals fall - but neither do they wish to immolate themselves by backing the Liberals on a confidence vote about a scandal this big, and they're very likely to lose that vote even if they do stick with the Liberals. Too risky; they'd vote no-confidence. Fortunately for the Liberals, there's still one option left...
- Take a leaf from Chretien's Playbook. When it became clear that Martin had control of the Liberal Party, Chretien was doomed. Rather than leave immediately, however, he publicly set a date for his resignation near the end of the year. This gave him control over the timing and agenda of his exit, and made it pointless for Martin to use his power to force what was already inevitable by date certain. It also gave his supporters time to find an anyone-but-Martin candidate if they could (the best they could do was Canada's equivalent of Barbara Boxer, who lost the leadership convention in a landslide; Martin loyalists then stacked and won her riding's candidate nomination just before the 2004 election, leaving her out of politics).
Under this 3rd scenario, Prime Minister Martin publicly steps up and promises firm action within 30 days of the Gomery Commission's report being released. This could give the NDP a political fig-leaf to resist no-confidence votes ("give inspectors time to work"), sway an Independent, and even take some traction away from the Conservatives as revelations continue to come out. Of course, Canada's other 3 parties could also decide that the relevations do give them enough traction, and the NDP could decide that the fig leaf and downside were outweighed by an electoral upside. Like it or not, this who dunnit could all blow up on the Liberals anyway; the key domino is falling, and they're just in too deep.
Right now, it's all in limbo. Opposition parties have been counting out the time, while the Liberals keep thinking there must be some other way. My guess is that Paul Martin will begin with Option #2, then shift to Option #3. Will it be enough, or is his misunderstanding the genesis of some big changes? Stay tuned - because the blogosphere, reporting from behind the lines drawn by countries and judges, will probably play a big role in determining the answer.
Like it or not.
--- UPDATE ---
I've kept on digging, and done a lot of thinking. If I thought this ban was complete b.s., I'd raise my middle finger, note that our server is in the USA and our readership is international, and dare them to try bothering us. But if these individuals whose testimony is under publication ban are already facing criminal charges, they deserve the best we can give them for a fair one.
FYI, Colby Cosh explains some of the legalities of the ban, and what the considerations are. Yes, I still believe the ban is futile and will remain so as long as leaks are happening, for the reasons noted above. Which means the ban will likely crumble. Even if it doesn't, this cat really is out of the bag, and all of the consequences I've noted still apply.
In the end, here's what it boils down to for me: common citizenship means we accept implicit responsibilities and obligations to each other. I may think Brault is scum, but I still owe him my protection as a fellow citizen.
So... I've named the blog in question for our international readers, and as a matter of simple courtesy to attribute the quotes. There's always Google, and I believe the American blog Outside the Beltway mentioned above may have a more direct route. I have removed the links to material in this article that might violate the publication ban directly - and that is truly the best we can give Brault et. al. in the Internet age.
I will leave it up to the consciences of my non-Canadian team-mates re: whether they wish to follow my lead, or to cover this for their audience. Unlike me, they don't owe Brault et. al. anything.
What do you think of that approach, and why? Use the Comments section and tell us.