Suddenly, last week, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion woke up and roared. Liberals have not seen him like that since he became party leader two years ago.
Dion is full of fight now - the leader the Liberals have been hoping for. The cowardly lion has found his courage. Watch out, Wicked Witch of the West.
All because of a libel threat by Prime Minister Stephen Harper against Dion. Nothing focuses the mind like a libel action.
Dion stood up to Harper all week, daring him to go ahead with his libel action. “I’m not backing down,” Dion said.
Harper takes offence over a couple of headlines on the Liberal Party web site that read: “Harper knew of Conservative bribery” and “Harper must come clean about allegations of Conservative bribery.”
It’s over allegations in a soon-to-be published book, Like a Rock: The Chuck Cadman Story, about the life of the West Coast independent MP.
Cadman is reported in the book as telling his wife, Dona Cadman, his daughter, and his son-in-law that he was offered a bribe, in the form of a $1-million insurance policy, by two high-ranking Conservatives, in exchange for casting the deciding vote to defeat the Paul Martin Liberal Government in May 2005.
Cadman’s wife says her husband considered it a bribe and turned it down. He voted with the Liberals, which kept the Liberal government alive a few more months. Cadman himself died two months later, and his widow collected only the regular MP’s life insurance of $239,000 instead of the $1-million policy.
All last week in the Commons, the Conservatives did their best to avoid Opposition questions.
The problem is the existence of a tape recording made by author Tom
Zytaruk with Harper back in 2005. On the tape, Harper admits an offer was made to Cadman, but that he didn’t know the details.
Harper began by saying the tape might have been doctored. That didn’t wash with the public.
Then he admitted it was his voice on the tape, but that the only offer was to pay Cadman for expenses linked to joining the Conservatives and running for the party in Surrey North.
Harper wouldn’t say how much was offered, or who made the offer, to Cadman. The problem with that story is that the Conservatives already had a candidate for that riding. Did the offer mean dumping the Conservative candidate in favour of Cadman? No answer from Harper.
The two operatives who visited Cadman on May 19, 2005 have been identified as Tom Flanagan, a senior policy advisor and close friend of Harper, and Conservative election campaign chief Doug Finley. His wife Diane Finley is a cabinet minister.
By mid-week, news media revealed that Harper himself had visited the dying Cadman at his home on April 1, 2005, about six weeks before the other two Conservatives did.
The Opposition kept demanding to know what was discussed with Cadman. Harper avoided direct answers. It hasn’t been easy for Harper. The Liberals want the RCMP to investigate the prime minister and the offer made to Cadman.
As for the libel action, at present it is no more than a notice. It hasn’t been filed or accepted, and no date has been set.
It’s a chance for Dion to apologize, says Harper. Dion says he has no intention of backing down.
In his libel notice Harper decries the Liberal web site statements as “false
and devastatingly defamatory.”
He continues: “These malicious and reckless statements impugn the reputation of the prime minister and were meant, and understood to mean inter alia, that the prime minister knew of a bribe of a member of Parliament and was an accomplice to that bribe.”
The notice says the web site articles suggest Harper is “dishonest, unethical, immoral, and lacks integrity” and that Harper knew he was violating the Criminal Code.
The libel claim goes far. Who could ever say such things about Stephen Harper, known as our prime ministerial paragon of virtue?
Apart from the web site headlines, the rest of the contents are taken from what was said in the Commons, where the allegations are privileged. Harper alleges in his libel action that they were presented “maliciously” and with “a reckless disregard for the truth.”
It is unprecedented for a prime minister to sue the leader of the Opposition. The only thing close to a precedent would be former prime minister Brian Mulroney suing the Liberal government for things it said about him in a letter it wrote in 1998 to Swiss authorities.
Mulroney sued for $50 million and settled for $2 million. Allan Rock, who was justice minister back then, said last month that if he had known at the time that Mulroney had accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash payments from arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber in hotel rooms, he might not have paid out the $2 million so readily.
Once the libel action is filed, Harper will be able to refuse to answer more questions on the grounds that the matter is before the courts.
Harper had the final word in the Commons the other day. He predicted the Liberal web site entries will become “the biggest mistake in judgment of [Dion’s] political career.”
Harper’s on-tape interview with the book’s author about the offer made to Cadman might be the “biggest mistake in judgment” of his own career.
Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org