The recent hearings of the Gomery Commission in Montreal have produced testimony damaging to the Liberal Party, particularly those in it associated with Jean Chrétien. It also led to the following by no means unique observation from Lawrence Martin in the March 24, 2005 edition of the Globe and Mail:
“It has become clear to every Liberal in the party that one of the worst decisions made by Prime Minister Paul Martin was the calling of an inquiry into the sponsorship scandal.... When Auditor-General Sheila Fraser’s report came out last year, Mr Martin had an option. He could have - to use his own words - swept it under the rug. He could have said it’s old era stuff, the police are investigating, no inquiry is needed. He would have been hit with a week or two of scathing headlines, but not much more.”
This argument has been advanced by many journalists before. It is not new. But whenever I see it again, I am reminded of just how utterly stupid and clueless most of our Ottawa commentariat really is.
Paul Martin made mistakes when he responded to the sponsorship scandal, but appointing the inquiry itself (Gomery himself was a very poor choice for Commissioner) was not one of them. He was lucky that he responded as quickly as he did. So far the scandal has not dragged down his government in part because he was able to distance himself very quickly from the Chrétien government when the scandal broke . The danger for Martin is that some fact rooted out by the investigation will still somehow link him personally to the scandal, although there is no sign of that so far.
He has been and will continue to be hurt by Quebec’s hostile reaction to the very idea of using federal money to intervene in the sovereignty debate, and to that society’s embarrassment over the presence of scandal in a social and political system most had to come to regard as very clean.
Most now forget, but the AG’s report came out on Tuesday, February 10, 2005. By the following Saturday, the Globe published a Reid poll showing a collapse in Liberal support. That means there was an instantaneous and overwhelmingly negative public reaction the government could not ignore. With the opposition smelling Liberal blood, the notion that they and the headline writers would have given up on this story after a “week or two of scathing headlines” is absolutely, completely crazy. Not appointing an inquiry communicates that you have something to hide, not exactly a message designed to restore public trust.
What baffles me is how often this contention of Lawrence Martin seems to be repeated as a kind of self-evident truth. The Reid poll numbers, relased just three days after the scandal broke, flatly contradict this lunacy.