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The Oliphant inquiry was an almost perfect Ottawa case study

According to pollsters, Canadians were skeptical that anything would come of the Oliphant inquiry into Brian Mulroney's dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber, and it's an open question how many changed their minds as a result of the commission's public hearings, which ended Wednesday.

True, there were a couple of startling revelations; however, most of what we got was a rehash of what had already been reported. Regrettably, notwithstanding some intriguing evidence, Mr. Justice Jeffrey Oliphant made clear that the sale of Airbus planes to Air Canada was not within his mandate.

And he quickly shut down any questioning that may have helped reveal what Mr. Schreiber did with the $20-million in commissions he received.

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Still, one group of Canadians is sure to get value for the millions the commission will spend examining another of Mr. Schreiber's projects, Bear Head. Since that project was considered both by Liberal and Conservative governments, political scientists will find buried in the Oliphant commission transcripts and exhibits an almost perfect case study of how Ottawa really works.

Under Jean Chrétien's Liberals, the project was put to death in less than two years; during the Conservative era, it proved impossible to kill. How can one explain the differing response to Mr. Schreiber's aggressive lobbying?

It was certainly not due to any change in his modus operandi: To counter the consistent opposition of the public service, Mr. Schreiber spent freely, engaging well-connected lobbyists of both political stripes. And their advice to Mr. Schreiber was consistent: Get the project out of the hands of the public service and raise it to the political level.

Frank Moores and Fred Doucet under the Conservatives and Marc Lalonde under the Liberals had no difficulty making contact and arranging meetings with powerful ministers. And they all had easy access to the PMO. The principal difference between the Conservative and Liberal eras was Mr. Mulroney's personal involvement - and the personal involvement of his successive chiefs of staff, including me - which created the widespread perception in Ottawa that Bear Head had friends at the highest levels of government.

Under the Liberals, Marc Lalonde wrote to Mr. Chrétien - his former cabinet colleague - about Mr. Schreiber's project, but neither Mr. Chrétien nor his chief of staff took a personal interest in it. As a result, bureaucratic opposition became increasingly "unvarnished," to quote one deputy minister whose involvement spanned the entire period under both governments.

And there's no evidence of Liberal ministers pulling any punches in their opposition to the project, as during the Conservative days.

As we know from the Gomery commission on the sponsorship program, Mr. Chrétien's PMO did not always exhibit such forbearance. We also know that, on that program, the public service abdicated its role once it became clear which way the political winds were blowing.

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On the Bear Head project, by contrast, the public service never wavered. Why the difference? In part it's due to the character of the individuals involved; it's also due to the restoration of competitive party politics at the federal level. For, challenging the prime minister can mean the loss of one's job - a step that was of much greater consequence in the one-party state we were becoming under the Liberals in the 1990s.

During the Oliphant commission hearings, we learned that Mr. Mulroney met with Mr. Schreiber - a German-Canadian arms dealer - as many as a dozen times while in office. These meetings included breakfast at 24 Sussex Dr. and a private meeting at Harrington Lake, the prime minister's summer residence. Both Privy Council clerk Paul Tellier and I testified that we could think of no other example of such access to Mr. Mulroney.

Unable to shut down the project, Mr. Tellier virtually challenged Mr. Mulroney to decide whether his government wished to proceed over bureaucratic objections - as was its right - but Mr. Mulroney demurred.

Mr. Schreiber continued to shell out hefty lobbyist fees, but in the end, the cost to taxpayers of the matter being considered by the Oliphant commission comes down to the waste of public servants' time - small potatoes compared to the cost of the sponsorship program, and small potatoes compared to the Airbus affair.

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