The topic of free flights did not go over well in the House of Commons, as the prime minister and members of his cabinet brushed off persistent questions from the opposition.
When some government MPs suggested people don’t care about the issue, the opposition fired back.
“These guys are so arrogant they think it’s up to them to decide what we can or can’t ask. Obviously they don’t like the questioning because we’ve already found out that three or four of them didn’t report things when they were supposed to.”
Seems like an ordinary day in the Commons. But this didn’t happen recently. This was August 2003. And the opposition leader? Then Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper.
At the time, four Liberal ministers under Jean Chrétien were under fire for free flights on Irving corporate jets or visits to the New Brunswick fishing lodge owned by the family.
Three months later, Harper was on the warpath again. This time, the prime minister was Paul Martin. Martin was defending the fact that when he was Chretien’s finance minister, he had accepted free flights from a number of rich friends.
“The whole purpose of conflict-of-interest rules is to make sure that you don’t accept gifts that have influence, and in particular, from friends,” Harper said.
Government ethics was Harper’s strong suit. At the time, the famous sponsorship scandal was just starting to unfold. Before long, the Gomery inquiry would unveil a breathtaking scheme of Liberal party financing through government coffers.
So, you would think when alleged cases of wrongdoing arise among his own ranks today, Harper would go out of his way to get to the bottom of it.
Apparently, a lot has changed in 10 years.
On Sunday, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae released a letter he wrote to Elections Canada formally requesting an investigation into the campaign spending of Labrador MP Peter Penashue during the 2011 election.
It comes on the heels of several allegations of overspending, including reports that an airline wrote off thousands of dollars in flights during the campaign.
Nonetheless, Harper seems content to ignore the matter, leaving it to Elections Canada to clear up the mess. He had a similar attitude when documents revealed Ontario MP Dean Del Mastro may have received campaign funds funneled through employees of his cousin’s company.
It’s hard to shake a scandal like the sponsorship scheme. Liberals are still trying to live it down.
But corruption is a cumulative thing, and the tally under Harper should start to raise some alarms.
Perhaps Harper should heed his own words from 2002, when Chrétien shuffled Art Eggleton and Don Boudria out of his cabinet over ethics violations.
“The crisis is a result of Jean Chrétien leading the government where, for the past nine years, ethical standards and competence have been declining constantly.”