No evidence of wrongdoing

Once again, Liberals close to Prime minister Paul Martin have come to the attention of the RCMP — oops, make that twice again.

Once again, Liberals close to Prime minister Paul Martin have come to the attention of the RCMP — oops, make that twice again.

It’s getting hard to keep up. In the most recent scandal, another $300,000 of save-the-country money seems to have gone missing, and the apparent agent of its disappearance is — surprise! — a close friend of the PM.

Claude Dauphin was an adviser to then Finance-minister Martin in the ‘90s.

Prior to that he was president of the federalist group Option Canada, which received a $4.8 million federal grant during the 1995 Quebec referendum.

Remarkably, there appears to be legitimate accounting of about $4.5 million of that grant.

Responding to reporters’ questions during a campaign stop in Whitby, Ontario, Martin pointed out that the money went astray “some 10 years ago,” and that things are different now because “I have demonstrated … that in my government, rules are to be followed. And there’s no exception to that.” Hm.

As regards the missing 300K, it’s still possible that no fat brown envelopes will turn out to have exchanged hands. There may have been no bribes, no kickbacks to the Liberal Party, no prominent Liberals enriched at the public expense.

But don’t bet the rent on it unless you have inside information.

Of course, if you’re well connected in Liberal circles, who knows? You may be much better informed than the rest of us. That’s the allegation at the heart of the other Liberal scandal in the headlines this month, the RCMP investigation into Finance minister Ralph Goodale’s office on what appears to be insider trading immediately prior to his recent announcement on income trusts.

The Goodale story hasn’t grabbed the headlines the way the Option Canada grant has. It lacks the elements of a simple scandal — taxpayers’ money unaccounted for, a nice specific sum in question, the clear whiff of the infamous sponsorship scandal resurfacing from its foul bog.

By comparison, insider trading is just too fuzzy to grasp. Who really knows what an income trust is, or what effect the ministerial announcement had on the markets?

Challenged with the Goodale story, Martin’s response was that there is as yet “no evidence of wrongdoing.”

He told reporters last week that, “We’re dealing with opposition allegations in the middle of an election campaign.”

You can almost hear the discreet cough, the respectful staffer whispering in the prime-ministerial ear: “Actually sir, that was yesterday. Today, we’re dealing with an RCMP investigation in the middle of an election campaign.”

An income trust is a tax shelter for investors.

According to the Investor Education Fund, “The combination of the trust’s equity and debt holdings allows the income to flow through to unitholders essentially tax-free.”

Nice work if you can get it, and those who can get it were unhappy about rumblings from Goodale that he might take steps to reduce that cozy shelter.

Enter Barry Campbell, former Liberal MP, Paul Martin’s 1996 parliamentary secretary, and a major fundraiser for the PM’s leadership campaign against Jean Chretien.

Mr. Campbell is now an Ottawa lobbyist.

His firm represented the Yellow Pages Group, who wanted Goodale to do exactly as he has done, and maintain the income trust tax shelter.

Hours before the Finance minister’s announcement Yellow Pages Group stocks rose 3.4 per cent.

Minutes after that announcement, Yellow Pages delivered a press release on the subject.

Again, this may not turn out to be much of a scandal by Liberal standards — there is as yet no certainty of criminal convictions — but it’s already resonating with the electorate.

In a poll released today, the Tories have surged to an eight-point lead over the Martinites.

What at first looked like a carbon copy of last year’s election has suddenly taken on a very different tone.

Canadian voters now have to come to grips with the fact that the Natural Ruling Party is on the verge of an electoral thrashing.

Scandal upon scandal have made even scary Stephen Harper seem like a better option.

Last year, Martin pulled the election out of the fire by demonizing Harper with “a hidden agenda,” and “American style politics,” and convincing millions of left-leaning voters that his party was just like the NDP, only with more chance of success.

Look for the same strategy to emerge this week, and then fizzle when the polls demonstrate that the Anybody But Martin movement is stronger than the fear of Harper.

Now, strategic voters who handed the Liberals last year’s minority are faced with a quandary. If Harper is such a dangerous right-winger, how best to rein him in?

The extreme unlikelihood of another Martin government spells death for a hundred government backbenchers whose main claim on their constituents’ loyalty was an apparent ability to bring home the bacon.

As opposition bench-warmers, they look a lot less attractive. But who to send instead?

Harper’s numbers in today’s polls would give him a stronger minority government than Martin enjoyed, but still a minority, which is some safeguard against what might otherwise be Tory excesses. Another two weeks of campaigning will change that of course, but in what direction?

This week’s leaders’ debates and the ensuing attack ads are bound to buffet the polls this way and that, but for the moment, let us be grateful that there seems little chance of another scandal-plagued Liberal term, and even less of a resounding Conservative majority.

Lots can happen in two weeks, but for now the question seems to be not whether we get a Tory blue parliament this time around, but just how blue is it going to be?

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