February 10, 2004) OTTAWA
- Prime Minister Paul Martin moved today to distance himself from any role in the sponsorship scandal following the release of a scathing report by Auditor General Sheila Fraser.
In her report Fraser detailed how money meant for programs and events to raise the profile of
the federal government in Quebec was funnelled to communications firms in the province through commissions they charged for simply transferring money.
This method of charging commissions by the communications firms was also evident in government transfers of money from departments to Crown Corporations, such as Via Rail.
During question period, Conservative MP Leon Benoit questioned what the PM's role was in the years the sponsorship program was at its height and said that as finance minister Martin was just as responsible as former public works minister Alfonso Gagliano.
"As finance minister he signed every cheque written by Mr. Gagliano," Benoit noted.
But Martin denied culpability.
"First of all the minister of finance does not sign cheques. Therefore, the member should get it straight," the PM retorted.
Martin's attempt to distance himself from the controversy raised the ire of the opposition.
"This is a man responsible for the budget," said NDP Leader Jack Layton. "He lamely claimed that he doesn't sign the cheques. Does he not look at the budgets and whether or not items are over budget? If not, then he's been incompetent as a finance minister."
Martin, who has already cancelled the controversial sponsorship program, also made other moves aimed at cleaning up the mess. This includes a public inquiry, a commons committee inquiry and the recall of Gagliano from
Denmark where he was ambassador.
But opposition parties say that the inquiries are just another way for the Martin government to sweep the issue under the rug before an election campaign.
"It will be an obfuscation exercise the likes of which we've probably never seen before in Canadian politics," said Layton. "Having inquiries, one piled on top of the other, all of which will probably report after the election is pretty shameless politics really."
Meanwhile the Conservatives are saying that Martin should postpone an election, which many expect will be held in mid May, until the findings of the inquiries are made.
"What is the rush, as far as an election is concerned?" asked Conservative MP John Williams.
"I think that if the inquiry is to go ahead, of course, Canadians need to know and they need to be able to judge this government on its record. And therefore an election should wait until we have the report."
Tory MP Peter MacKay, who said the Auditor General's report shows the sponsorship program was a kickback scheme for loyal Liberals, said there is no need for an election, but there is a need for the government to "explain some of these atrocious spending practices."
"If the government is rushing head-long into an election at this point, it's to avoid accountability."
MacKay said the government's call for the inquiry is just a stalling tactic, and described Fraser's report as the real inquiry.
MacKay said in light of Fraser's report he does not know what it will take to hold the government accountable.
"I don't know if it's going to take RCMP officers coming up the steps in squad cars, like they did to (Ottawa Citizen reporter) Juliet O'Neill, shackling some minister and dragging him out the front door of the House of Commons."
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