The Sponsorship Scandal Still Matters

One of the very few politically  insignificant legacies of the Sponsorship Scandal is that ever since I have been of a sympathetic disposition toward the then Minister of Human Resources Development, Jane Stewart. She more than any politician — and here I include Paul Martin, who clearly was designated by the early-retiring Jean Chrétien as the bag holder — was bespattered by the ill-will which finally brought to an end what seemed the inevitability of Liberal rule in Canada.

I felt then she had been abandoned and disgraced by Martin, and I was still of this view years later when I drove to her charming farm house outside of St George to interview her on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the Statement of Reconciliation. Doubtless for her a happier memory, and although she only happened to be the Minister of Indian Affairs in 1998, in many ways she was just the person to deliver an apology (which, she maintains, is precisely what it was) to survivors of forced removal and of physical and sexual abuse in Indian residential schools.

It would be difficult to overstate the damage done to Liberal credibility by the Sponsorship Scandal. In his 2008 book, Hell or High Water: My Life in and out of Politics, Paul Martin rehearses the scandal’s recrudescence from “small beer” to eventual cesspool. Anyone in Ottawa at the time could smell the rot on the air. The current Prime Minister is even as I write this having a rough time of it, and once again it is the Auditor General serving up his due portion of grief. But the  Sponsorship Scandal was no ordinary affair. The cynicism and corruption were deep and wide and anyone could grasp with ease the nature of the offence as well as of the offenders. It seemed that for months each day brought with it a fresh transgression, another poke in the electorate’s eye. The scandals of the Harper Conservatives are felt along the pulses only of the political, and then mostly among those who incline leftward. The Sponsorship Scandal however was like a wind that makes the bones ache. One did not require a Political Science degree or an interest in Parliamentary procedure to feel its bite.

I’ve yet to hear anyone suggest that the style of governance exhibited by Stephen Harper is to some degree a legacy too of the Auditor General’s reports between 2001 and 2006, but such it surely is. In Hell or High Water, Martin contrasts the political landscape pre- and -post scandal. He cites the resurgence of the PQ and of Quebec separatism (the very things which the Sponsorship program was created in 1996 to prevent), the fragmentation of the left, and the ascendance of — his words — the most right-wing Prime Minister in Canadian history.

What he does not note however is the enormous harvest of Sponsorship Scandal cynicism, without which the Reform-Alliance right would surely have been 2006’s also-ran. The Sponsorship Scandal became a by-word, so that when (to cite one of many possible examples) the Auditor General turned her attention to “delegated arrangements” — which means government funded organizations — the media assimilated her comments to the existing narrative. Now anything may be casually undermined by the application of the term “boondoggle,” all that is required is that it is government funded. Any government today, left or right, would be chastened in such an environment. The Sponsorship Scandal discredited, or at the least made it much easier to discredit, the very idea of government funding. The Conservatives came to power and forthwith pulled all the cards to their chests, along with the funds and the development of policy, disclosing an extraordinary small-c conservative impulse which too is at the core of the Sponsorship Scandal sea change.

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