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Witch hunt or 3 ring circus?

(PoliticsWatch posted March 29, 2004) OTTAWA - "Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials was in reality an indictment of the scourge of McCarthyism, in which a Senate committee, fed by political ambition and public fear, abused its powers to destroy the lives of people falsely suspected of disloyalty. Rather like the public accounts committee is starting to behave." Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson.

The Liberal government originally wanted the Public Accounts committee to be a way to quickly shed light on what went wrong with the sponsorship program. But now members of the party, including Liberal committee members, along with some in the media have decided that it is starting to resemble a range of negative things, including a witch hunt.
"It's a fair accusation in terms of members of the opposition who appear to be showing no interest in carrying out the actual mandate of our committee, which is to determine ministerial responsibility, and appear to want to conduct a judicial or a criminal inquiry, which is not our mandate," said Liberal MP Marlene Jennings, who is also vice-chair of the committee. 

Questions about ministers involvement in the sponsorship program are also being characterized as a witch hunt. 

In question period today, the opposition pressed the prime minister to reveal whether Privy Council President Denis Coderre told him that he met with the director of the sponsorship program when he was minister of amateur sport. 

"We are witnessing, at the present time, the witch hunt of Salem revisited," Government House Leader Jacques Saada said in response. "It is Machiavellianism at its worse. It is enough."

The committee is also being branded in other ways, too. 

"Three-ring circus" was what Liberal MP and committee member Shawn Murphy said he feared the committee was becoming last week after Olympic gold medallist Myriam Bedard gave hearsay testimony about drug trafficking and secret $12 million U.S. sponsorships for Canadian athletes. 

Murphy even chastised committee chair John Williams for later making comments about Bedard's testimony.

"What you did, Mr. Chairman, was you gave credence and you gave credibility to the statements that were made earlier that day by the witness," Murphy said during Thursday's hearings. 

Not only that, but Murphy said the Liberals on the committee wanted to "totally, absolutely, utterly disassociate ourselves from the allegations that were made" by Bedard. 

However, Bedard's comments about the secret sponsorship and drug trafficking were made in her opening statement. A check of the transcript of the committee hearings shows no Liberals trying to disassociate themselves from the gold medallist. 

"Madam Bédard, like my colleagues I want to extend my thanks for your frank and forthright testimony," Murphy said to Bedard just hours before he made the disassociation proclamation. In his four minutes of questioning, Murphy then asked Bedard a total of 10 questions, all related to her employment at Via and her refusal to be transferred to Groupaction. 

The opposition is not taking the witch hunt characterizations lightly. 

"It was the prime minister himself who said he wants to get to the bottom of this and find out who is responsible," said Conservative Leader Stephen Harper. "He can hardly then call any questions asking who's responsible a witch hunt."

Harper also blasted the public inquiry to be headed by Justice Charles Gomery, which isn't expected to start hearing testimony until the fall. 

"(Public Accounts is) trying to find the truth and the other one isn't doing a thing," said Harper. "You can't just call asking simple questions on fact a witch hunt." 

"I think there are a lot of witches that are yet to be discovered," said Tory MP Peter MacKay in mocking tone following the latest use of the witch hunt characterization. 

NDP MP and committee member Judy Wasylycia-Leis also takes exception with the new Liberal spin. 

"The Liberals are looking for a quick way to blame something abstract, like ministerial responsibility, so they can go to the polls and say the problem is fixed," she said. "We know the problem is much deeper than that."

She said because the judicial inquiry can't get its act together and get up and running in a timely fashion, the public accounts committee becomes "the only game in town." 

Some committee members are also concerned about the Liberals possibly spinning a recently agreed to decision for a progress report that provides a summary of evidence and testimony to date as an interim report. Prime Minister Paul Martin has repeatedly said he would not call an election until sufficient light is shone on what went wrong with the program. 

In question period today, Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy characterized the spin as "more Liberal interference" with the committee.

"The committee decided to do up a summary of the evidence so far that would help in questioning some of the other big players still to appear," she said. "Suddenly the Liberal communication spin has this little summary of evidence morphing into a full-blown committee report.

"Is this shameless Liberal spin because they are desperate to say there has been a report so that they can call a spring election?"

Saada characterized Ablonczy's allegation as "total nonsense." 

But the NDP's Wasylycia-Leis agrees with Ablonczy. 

"The Liberals are trying to spin this to suggest that it's going to be an interim report with definitive findings. Well that's crap. That's nonsense. That's a breach of what our committee discussions are all about." 

The interim report is set to be compiled in mid-April, which would be before Chuck Guite, the executive director of the sponsorship program and one of the key witnesses yet to be heard from, testifies. 

"There's still a number of very relevant witnesses that we need to hear from, not the least of which is Chuck Guite," said MacKay. 

"This is an exercise in making it look as if the Liberals are getting to the bottom of it, but we're barely skimming the surface right now." 

Committee chair John Williams said that he is uncertain whether an interim report in April would be a defining document on the scandal. 

"The prime minister has said that he would like to have all the facts on the table before an election is called so Canadians can understand and know what has transpired here," said Williams. "To cut that short and have an election right in the middle would completely contradict what he's been saying." 

Check out these related links:

arrow-trans.gif (111 bytes) Public Accounts Sponsorship Hearings 

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