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gary mason

For much of the spring of 2009, Premier Gordon Campbell and his then-attorney general Wally Oppal were constantly being called to their feet in the provincial legislature to answer questions about the auction of BC Rail - questions prompted by revelations coming out of a corruption trial dealing with aspects of the privatization of the Crown-owned rail line.

In particular, the NDP Opposition wanted more details about the involvement of Liberal insider Patrick Kinsella in the 2004 sale. This was the same Patrick Kinsella who, as campaign director, had orchestrated the Liberals' landslide election win in 2001.

It was revealed in pretrial hearings that shortly after the election, Mr. Kinsella was hired by BC Rail and would be paid $300,000 over the next few years for "strategic advice." It was also alleged, and never denied by either Mr. Kinsella or Canadian National, that he was also on the payroll of the rail company as a lobbyist/consultant during the period of the sale.

CN would become the successful bidder for BC Rail, a much-cherished entity Mr. Campbell had promised during the election campaign not to sell. Rival companies were not happy. CP Rail had earlier pulled out of what it called a "tainted" bid process that favoured CN from the start. A second bidder expressed similar concerns.

CN's chairman at the time was David McLean, a major fundraiser of Mr. Campbell's.

The NDP wanted to know if the Premier's former campaign director, Mr. Kinsella, was "working both sides of the fence" on a deal that ultimately went to a rail line chaired by a major donor to Mr. Campbell.

A completely fair question, given all appearances, and one that was worthy of some form of impartial examination.

But of course, the NDP and reporters never got any answers. Both Mr. Campbell and Mr. Oppal took refuge behind the coda of sub judice; because the matter was before the courts they couldn't comment. It was a defence that really wasn't valid. Mr. Kinsella wasn't on trial and his association with the case was tangential at best. Also, the trial was being held before judge alone. Some of the top legal minds in the country declared that the sub judice rationale, under the circumstances, was bogus.

I bring this up now for this reason: We will never get answers to the legitimate queries prompted by Mr. Kinsella's presence in the BC Rail transaction. The BC Rail trial ended this week with a couple of pleas, and with it went any chance of finding out what was really going on behind the scenes of this $1-billion deal.

That's a shame because so much about it doesn't feel right.

The Liberals have said they don't intend to hold a public inquiry into the sale, and who can blame them? The chances of such a probe inflicting further damage on their government are high. Besides, it's easy to defend the decision on the grounds a public inquiry would cost millions in taxpayers' dollars.

Would there be any point in the NDP calling a similar inquiry should it gain power in 2013? No. By then you're talking about examining an event that happened 10 years earlier. Recollections would be even foggier than they are now. Relevant documents will have been destroyed. The public wouldn't care.

Say what you will about the plea-bargain agreement reached in the BC Rail case this week, but the trial did offer a window on the controversial sale that didn't exist before. Yes, in a perfect world, the defendants would have pleaded guilty right away and spared taxpayers the millions of dollars in costs associated with the case. But the case, such as it was, became a de facto inquiry - one whose scope was admittedly quite narrow.

The privatization of BC Rail betrayed a government promise. There are several aspects of the sale as troubling as the deception itself. There are questions about the conduct of some of those involved that should be answered - under oath.

Unfortunately, now they almost certainly won't be.

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