When you are in opposition, every day is pretty much the same.
Here’s your average day for an opposition MP: Get up, get dressed, go to work, denounce the government and call for an inquiry into something or other. Have lunch. Express outrage about this and that, call for a Royal Commission. Go home, have dinner, go to bed.
Then, start over again tomorrow!
Now, I’m oversimplifying things, as usual, but not by much. Opposition parties adore inquiries and commissions. There are two reasons for this. One, inquiries make governments squirm, and opposition MPs lead a pretty joyless existence (see above). They love making governments squirm.
Two, the ink-stained media hordes love them, too. Reporters positively live for drama and conflict — if it bleeds it leads, the saying goes — so they’ll always be in the front row at an inquiry’s opening day, fervently praying for disaster. Disasters are fun to write about.
The question, of course, is whether the public — Joe and Jane Frontporch — find any of these commissions of inquiry in any way useful or necessary.
As fun as assorted inquiries may have been to opposition politicians and the media, I tend to doubt your average Canadian feels the same way. In fact, it’s unlikely that Mr. and Mrs. Frontporch knows, or cares, about most of these inquiries.
The Mother of All Inquiries, and the possible exception to the above-noted generalization, was the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program. Or, as I preferred to call it, the Gomery Pyle Commission. Even Joe and Jane Frontporch heard about that one. It was hard to miss.
Led by a self-described “hobby farmer” named John Gomery — a Westmount, Que., jurist who, as things turned out, never met a microphone he didn’t like — the commission cost about $100 million and went on for more than two interminable years, capturing front-page headlines every morning.
The media loved the Gomery Pyle Commission because it racked up an impressive political body count. So too the Tories, then in opposition — although, once ensconced in the bosom of government, the Harper folks couldn’t get away fast enough from the Westmount hobby farmer.
Shortly after he won the 2006 federal election, Stephen Harper was asked about some of Gomery’s wacky recommendations about radically changing government. Said he: “I don’t need the complication of making major structural changes.” Gomery, in turn, was mightily unimpressed, sniffing that Harper didn’t provide an “answer to my report.”
Bizarrely, however, the Harper government continued to stand by one part of Gomery’s report — the part that said that former prime minister Jean Chretien was personally to blame for the sponsorship mess.
Chretien appealed and the Federal Court agreed with him, saying that Gomery had been biased. “No reasonable person,” wrote the court, “could possibly conclude that the commissioner would decide the issues fairly.”
In fact, the Federal Court ruled Gomery had even engaged in “personal insults” aimed at the former Liberal leader. The vainglorious Gomery was too preoccupied with the media “spotlight,” they said. Ouch.
Despite that judicial blast, the Harper regime continued to stick with Gomery. Chretien was then forced to take the matter up with the Federal Court of Appeal — and, last week, he won. Gomery had indeed been biased, the federal appeal judges ruled.
So, does any of that matter?
Yes. Most of all, it means that opposition politicians need to think carefully about their incessant carping for politically motivated inquiries. Truly, all that they are really doing is further eroding peoples’ faith in democracy.
If there’s criminal wrongdoing, call in the cops. If it isn’t criminal, let the people throw the bums out in an election.
It’ll mean a lot less work for lawyers, sure.
My hunch? Joe and Jane Frontporch will be OK with that.
—Kinsella is a lawyer, consultant and Liberal Party spin-doctor. He blogs at warrenkinsella.com