Wednesday, November 14, 2007
OTTAWA - Stephen Harper is defending Brian Mulroney's stint in international bribery and its not helping his minority government which recently lost 5% in the polls.
Harper is trying to distance himself from Mulroney's past which has just refused to stay in the old Tory closet, but at the same time has been trying to help out the Tory patriarch. Ultimately however Harper can't afford the liability of getting involved in a scandal which could hand the Liberals a majority government.
Harper announced Friday that he would commission an independent probe into allegations of Mulroney's business dealings with controversial businessman Karlheinz Schreiber, and attempt by Harper to sever ties with his former mentor and distance himself from the scandal.
"I think it will be incumbent on me and also upon members of the government not to have dealings with Mr. Mulroney until this issue is resolved,'' Harper told reporters.
That could be easier said than done.
The new Conservative party is an intricate mixture of Reform members, Canadian Alliance members and Progressive Conservatives, perhaps not completely cohesive after only a few years of co-habitation.
Late Friday, some Conservatives were privately wondering what the reaction would be from Tory Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton, who has been a passionate defender of Mulroney's as a former aide and as a friend.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay is another Mulroney booster. Other senior Conservatives, including Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon's Chief of Staff, Paul Therrien, also hailed from the Mulroney era.
Harper's pointman on his transition to power in January 2006 was led by Derek Burney, a former Mulroney chief of staff.
The decision to cut Mulroney loose could not have been an easy one for Harper, said some insiders, who said Harper owes much to the elder Tory.
Mulroney was instrumental in helping smooth the way for a merger between the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance, and in the process became a confidante of Harper's. This was no small feat for a man whose negative image split small c-conservatives in the first place, giving rise to both the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois.
Stephen Harper alluded to the rehabilitation of Mulroney in a glowing public speech last April.
"I am delighted to be here with you this evening to pay tribute to a man who is increasingly recognized for all his achievement as prime minister,'' Harper said, later mentioning Mulroney in the same breath as Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan for his efforts to end communism.
Mulroney's role in merger
Faron Ellis, a longtime watcher of small c-conservative politics in Western Canada, said Mulroney served Harper's purposes in helping to merge Canada's right wing and later assuage the fears of Progressive Conservatives in the new party.
His designation by an environmental group as Canada's "greenest prime minister'' also helped lend a modicum of legitimacy to the new Conservatives.
But Ellis said the Reform/Canadian Alliance element in the party never really warmed up to Mulroney.
"There will be no love lost for most Reformers, and most of them would even say it serves to remind our new brothers and sisters in arms what kind of trouble Mulroney was,'' said Ellis, of Alberta's Lethbridge College. "You people were with him, so watch your step.''
Still, insiders from the PC side of the family were downplaying any effects the probe would have on relationships within the party.
"The Conservative Party that Mr. Harper has built with former Progressive Conservatives like Peter MacKay and (Industry Minister) Jim Prentice is very, very strong and very respectful of the strengths that both sides bring to the table. That won't be at all at risk,'' said Geoff Norquay, a former Mulroney staffer and ex-communications director for Harper
Ellis says some Tories would likely see the logic in Harper distancing himself from Mulroney. He was, afterall, the man largely to blame for the party's drubbing in the 1993 election that left them with only two seats, Ellis added.
"The PC members of this coalition are not stupid. They know that Mulroney was problematic for their own causes and reasons, and in a certain sense most of them now would probably say, let's get beyond the guy. He's last century's news.''
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