A former Canadian PM is the latest politician to prove "political judgment" is an oxymoron

Canadians watched in disbelief this past week as one of the country’s former Prime Ministers gave evidence about accepting wads of thousand-dollar bills in plain ‘legal-sized’ envelopes from a shady German businessman. Surely, now is the time to forever ban the oxymoronic phrase "political judgement".

For six days, Brian Mulroney has been in the witness chair of the Oliphant Federal Inquiry into the exact nature of his relationship with Karlheinz Schreiber. Whatever the ‘nature’ it paid handsomely for bugger-all work. Mulroney says he got $225,000, Schreiber testified he shelled out $300,000. Detail schmetail, after all even the former PM didn’t keep any records. Poor record keeping, it turns out, is an essential feature of poor political judgment, in a ‘dog-ate-my-homework’ kind of way.

Mulroney was no longer PM during this business arrangement with the troublesome Karlheinz but still, what was a top politician doing taking, on three separate occasions, envelopes stuffed with cash? Not once. Three times. His answer—“a regretful lack of judgment”.

That, folks, is humility Mulroney-style, and is calculated to drive all who dare to question him into an evidentiary cul-de-sac. Ever more so when it came embellished with an appeal to us mere mortals. The less than recalcitrant ex-leader slowed his delivery and announced he had “paid dearly” for his error (note that wasn’t was paid dearly). He added, “It would be my hope one day to encounter a Canadian who in the course of a long and busy life has not made an error of some kind. I haven’t yet. I am not one to be found amongst those who can say they have lived a full life but it has been error free.” A few days later he told the inquiry he had never knowingly done anything wrong in his life.

Mulroney has been questioned about his and Schreiber’s relationship before, and he’s chosen to be extremely economical with the details, explaining to this inquiry that he didn’t disclose the monies paid way back when because he wasn’t asked the question to which that would be an answer. Look no further for an example of why people don’t much like politicians. If your virtue metre isn’t phased by politicians being ‘paid’ in untraceable cash, chances are you are in a very small class of voters.

But wait, there’s more. Turns out there were major tax issues with this money. Mulroney was paid to lobby on behalf of mates of Schreiber’s to get a light armoured personnel carrier factory built near Montreal. Kerchingggg! No factory was ever built, nor was tax paid on the fee for services while Mulroney had it stashed it away in safes his Montreal home and in  New York. Then he made a backdated voluntary income disclosure for the years of 1992, 1993, 1994 and managed through his accountant to do a deal with Revenue Canada in which he paid tax on only half the $225,000. Of course he told the inquiry he knew nothing about the deal done on his behalf, and there’s no reason to doubt that. This is after all perfectly legal stuff. You know, get a brilliant accountant and all that. Mulroney is not facing charges of any criminal sort. But that’s not the point.

What sort of person devotes much of their life to public office, and rises to the lofty heights of Prime Minister of a developed democracy, to then engage in this sort of thing?

Were there not little alarm bells signaling time for a reality check? What about a reality cheque that would be traceable, create an income trail the likes of which apply to the rest of us, and would be liable to full taxation as income earned in the year or years it was earned? Nup.

There were tears, anger, frustration, contradictory testament and downright belligerence during the inquiry as Mulroney tip-toed around his business dealings and toyed with lawyers less wily than he. His legal team laid the victim grounds beautifully as Mulroney, in his best Nixonian drawl, seemed to take forever chatting and reminiscing about decades of self-expressed extraordinary service to Canada. Nay, service to the world, as after listening to him you’d swear he was responsible for everything from ending the potato famine in Ireland to reunification of Germany and much, much more in between. Self pity, self aggrandisement and undoubted self-belief do not, however, answer basic questions like “whatever possessed you to take envelopes of cash?”

Tissues or buckets, it is likely it will all matter not. Mulroney looked positively virtuous when compared to Schreiber, which goes to show how important perspective is. Mulroney's best weapon—intellect and legal team aside—is that he is not facing a prison sentence whereas his accuser almost certainly is and once the inquiry wraps up will be on the first plane out to face a German court. As for the inquiry, what can it find? Chances are it will believe Mulroney over Schreiber, but it’s done precious little for the reputation of Canadian politicians.

Its revelations have once again blown apart any vestige of faith that those we elect attain office  on the basis of sound political judgment. Perhaps those two words should be officially and irrevocably disentangled. Under scrutiny the phrase "political judgment" too often proves oxymoronic and therefore superfluous. In case more evidence is required, those who tired of the Mulroney-Schreiber carry on needed only switch channels or turn the page to find the testimony of Ottawa’s mayor on trial for influence-peddling, a.k.a. trying to ‘convince’ a competitor to drop out of the last mayoral race.

Countries around the world—New Zealand's Rankin is no exception—manage to produce from time to time these spectacular failures in political judgment and in so doing reveal a Christmas-like quality in those in question. From social science and media perspectives at least, they truly are little gifts that just keep on giving. Or receiving, as the case may be

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