RM Issue #031030
November 2, 2003
The ones who got away -- with everything
By GREG WESTON -- Sun Media
Greg Weston columns
A national public opinion poll conducted last year by Leger Marketing reached the conclusion that 70% of Canadians have become convinced the federal political system is corrupt.
The other 30%, we have to assume, do not read newspapers and believe the country is governed by the tooth fairy.
The survey results prompted one particularly poignant observation from Gilles Paquet, a highly respected University of Ottawa political science professor, and an expert on good governance.
"The level of crookedness that we have come to expect from our politicians is so high that indeed people can get away with anything," Paquet said.
"The cynicism is so profound that it will take something absolutely extraordinary to reach people. Their sensitivity has been dulled completely."
Among those whose senses have clearly been dulled by something are the five federal cabinet ministers who admit to having accepted snazzy fishing trips and private jet rides from the zillionaire Irving family of New Brunswick.
The Liberal government's own conflict-of-interest code states that those in public office must "avoid being placed -- or the appearance of being placed -- under an obligation to any person or organization, that might profit from special consideration on the part of the office-holder."
Another section of the code demands that politicians maintain the "highest ethical standards so that public trust and confidence in the integrity, objectivity and impartiality of government are conserved and enhanced."
In other words, if something wouldn't pass a sniff test by the average Canadian, don't do it.
Of the five federal ministers caught playing with Irving toys, the odour is definitely strongest around Industry Minister Allan Rock. Rock has admitted that in 2001 he spent time at J.D. Irving's private salmon fishing lodge on the Restigouche River in New Brunswick, flown there and back on an Irving executive jet.
While Rock has explanations for everything, his frolic with the Irvings turned up the nose of even the prime minister's resident apologist, ethics counsellor Howard Wilson.
Among other things, Wilson ordered Rock to excuse himself from any dealings with the Irvings for a one-year period.
It is to laugh.
From the executive suites of the Irving office towers in St. John, on a clear day, the family can see itself for miles in every direction.
There is the petroleum empire of Irving Oil, complete with a fleet of ships and tankers, 700 service stations, and by far the largest oil refinery anywhere in Canada.
Then there are the millions of acres of timber the Irvings own in the Maritimes, Quebec and New England.
The Irvings need all those trees to feed their sprawling network of pulp and paper mills, lumber yards, retail hardware outlets, not to mention the newsprint for the Irvings' chain of major daily newspapers.
Across the pond in Prince Edward Island, the Irvings own the massive Cavendish Farms and other potato production facilities. The forever creative Irvings got into the spud business a while back to become one of the largest suppliers of french fries in North America with giant customers such as Wendy's and other fast-food chains.
Until recently, the Irvings also owned St. John Shipyards which, at its peak of building the Canadian navy frigates in the 1980s and early '90s, employed over 3,000 people.
Actually, the Irvings still own the company, but the historic shipyard was closed down last June after a decade of decline in the Canadian shipbuilding industry.
We should also mention in passing that the shipyard closed after Jean Chretien's government generously donated nearly $55 million of our tax money to the struggling Irvings' business -- $15 million to redevelop the old shipyards, and up to $40 million for other assorted Irving enterprises in New Brunswick and elsewhere.
The champion of that deal in the Liberal cabinet just happened to be the federal minister of industry, one A. Rock.
Rock says the money was part of a program to help convert the entire ship-building industry into other enterprises, and therefore wasn't just a $55-million gift to the Irvings who, by chance, happened to have been the biggest ship-builders around.
No one is suggesting Rock's couple of days of casting for salmon with J.D. Irving produced a government cheque for $55 million.
Indeed, given the massive expanse of the Irving empire -- in forestry, oil, shipping, agriculture, manufacturing, food processing - - it would be impossible for Rock to fulfil his duties as industry minister and not encounter the Irvings at some point, as demanded by the ethics counsellor.
Of course, Paul Martin is about to clean house and usher in a new era of ethical government.
Did we mention that J.D. Irving cut a cheque for $100,000 for Martin's leadership campaign?
No wonder Canadians are cynical about politics.