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Adam Radwanski

Dancing around the elephant Add to ...

It was a close call. But through the Oliphant Commission, it's been definitively established that Brian Mulroney's reputation should not, in fact, be rehabilitated.

It's a good thing to know, I suppose. But you have to wonder if we couldn't have gotten a little more bang for our $14-million.

In his week on the stand, Mulroney was at various points blustery, manipulative, self-pitying and slippery. After the first day, a headline described him as "vintage." Before long, he cut a somewhat pathetic figure. Although it was almost certainly a PR stunt, his claim last week to have been driven to tears by the mockery of a couple of journalists - mockery that seem to have been a figment of either his or his publicist's imagination - epitomized the degree to which he's fallen. This was what it had come to for our larger-than-life former prime minister?

So yes, we got our pound of flesh. And yes, Mulroney richly deserved it. But what we didn't do was tackle the elephant in the room - the underlying question to which answers might have made this whole thing more relevant to matters of governance, rather than just character.

In fact, day after day, the inquiry has scrupulously steered clear of what Mulroney did when he was actually running the country. That's not the fault of the lead counsel, Richard Wolson, who's done very well within the parameters that were set for him. But because the inquiry was explicitly instructed not to investigate the Airbus deal, the whole thing has seemed a little beside the point.

Ever since the cash payments from Karlheinz Schreiber came to light, there's been speculation - totally unsubstantiated, mind you - that they were payback for something or other that happened while Mulroney was prime minister. If so, we'd have a real scandal. If not, we've got a former PM who showed poor judgment once he returned to private life - or, at the very most, when he was already out the door in all but body.

In that case, which is the only case there is right now, the relevance to the Government of Canada seems little greater than it would be if any other private citizen had done what Mulroney did. As his testimony wore on, the various sordid details that emerged - the amount of tax he belatedly paid on the Schreiber payments, for instance - seemed further and further from the original concern.

Of course, the one topic that's certainly had relevance has been the, ahem, not fully truthful testimony that Mulroney gave back in 1996, when he achieved a settlement in his lawsuit against the government partly by claiming not to have had meaningful contact with Schreiber. His attempts to justify that lack of truthfulness - lawyers didn't specifically ask about something they couldn't have known about, so he didn't tell them - have strained credulity and then some. But there's only so far he can be pressed on why exactly he did mislead those lawyers, because after all that lawsuit was about the Airbus investigation, and we're not supposed to be talking about Airbus.

So we've been left mostly with theatre, and it will be an achievement if Justice Oliphant can make the report that comes out of it look like anything much more than a theatre review. Mulroney surely won't get higher marks for his behaviour over the last 16 years than he has for his performance the past week, but other than confirming old suspicions about his personality it really won't tell us much about the years of his life that mattered most to Canadians.

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