Friday, January 11, 2008

Delays and denials

So far most of the criticism of Deceivin' Stephen's announcement about the impending inquiry into Mulroney/Schreiber has focused on the relatively narrow terms of reference. But I have to wonder whether the more dangerous part of Harper's announcement is the fact that the inquiry won't be convened until after the Commons ethics committee is done investigating.

The most obvious problem with linking the inquiry to the committee hearings is that it'll allow the Cons to put their dirty committee tricks handbook on full display. There's every reason to expect that the Cons will put every effort into manipulating the committee in order to ensure their preferred timing for any inquiry - and particularly if an election is looming, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see the Cons pull out every delay tactic they can in order to stop the inquiry from happening at all.

What's worse, though, Harper's announcement raises a serious risk that the Cons will find some way to shuffle Schreiber out of the country rather than facing the inquiry at all.

Remember that last year, Rob Nicholson refused either to amend the terms of Schreiber's extradition to allow him to testify, or to order Schreiber to appear before the committee. Indeed, despite public statements to the contrary from the legal counsel to the House of Commons, Nicholson claimed repeatedly that he had absolutely no authority to delay the extradition.

As a result, Schreiber had to be summoned before the ethics committee on a speaker's warrant. That had the effect of putting Schreiber in the "custody of Parliament" as long as his testimony is needed.

Schreiber then won a temporary reprieve from extradition last November. But if the Supreme Court of Canada rejects his appeal, he could well face extradition again as soon as this spring. And if that happens at a time when the speaker's warrant is no longer in effect (which it presumably wouldn't be once the committee hearings are over), then the decision whether or not to extradite Schreiber will once again fall solely into the hands of Rob Nicholson.

For those wondering, the Inquiries Act does provide for a warrant process - but only on the part of the actual commissioner. Which means that if the inquiry isn't convened until after the committee hearings end, there's bound to be at least some gap where Nicholson can decide to push Schreiber out of the country.

In effect, Harper's announcement suggests that no inquiry will be allowed to proceed as long as the speaker's warrant (or indeed any basis for a future warrant) exists. Which in turn removes the sole means for the opposition parties to ensure that Schreiber will be in the country to testify - leaving them at the Cons' mercy as to whether or not the most important witness will actually be available.

Of course, there is one solution to the time problem if the ethics committee hearings end before the court-ordered stay does. But the Cons would likely be entirely happy to minimize the damage Mulroney tends to to do their image within the committee. And even then, the opposition parties would have to rely on Harper's word that he'd actually call the inquiry rather than finding some excuse to do otherwise.

It remains to be seen how the hearings and inquiry will play out. But based on the Cons' track record, there's every reason for suspicion that they're looking for a way to get rid of Schreiber before he can fatally damage their godfather - and Harper's choice to delay the inquiry only makes that look all the more likely.

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