It would be a relief to say, based on his Sunday cabinet shuffle, that we now know where Jean Chrétien draws the line. Sadly, it remains a guessing game.
The Prime Minister has rightly decided that Art Eggleton does not belong in cabinet. As defence minister, Mr. Eggleton awarded an untendered $36,500 contract to a former girlfriend, an Ottawa consultant, to provide a 14-page report on post-traumatic stress disorder in the military -- a subject already being studied at length by Mr. Eggleton's own department. The minister and the consultant realized beforehand that it might raise questions, but went ahead anyway.
Mr. Eggleton's defence: It came out of his discretionary office budget, so it was entirely his prerogative to pay the taxpayers' money to whomever he wished. That story didn't pass muster even with the Prime Minister's notoriously tame ethics counsellor, who said the contract violated the in-house ethics code.
But there was already good reason to get rid of the ineffective minister. Consider the bizarre spectacle last February, when Mr. Eggleton misled the House of Commons about when he had first been told Canadian soldiers had handed Afghan prisoners over to the Americans. He couldn't remember detailed briefings from senior officials.
At the time, when NDP Leader Alexa McDonough called for Mr. Eggleton's resignation, Mr. Chrétien wouldn't hear of it. "Myself, cabinet and the Liberal Party have confidence in the abilities and dedication of the Minister of National Defence." This week, he indulged in a bit of creative rewriting. "There was controversy in February with Mr. Eggleton, and I felt I had to accept his resignation."
Then there is Don Boudria, who took over Public Works in January from Alfonso Gagliano. To his credit, Mr. Boudria began tackling the mess of cronyism and mismanagement left by his predecessor. But he showed appalling judgment in spending the March 16 weekend at the luxurious lakeside residence of the owners of Groupe Everest, a major donor to the Liberal Party of Canada and the beneficiary of millions of dollars in contracts awarded through Mr. Boudria's ministry. His son may have paid $400 a night for it, with a cheque left uncashed until the controversy broke two months later, but Mr. Boudria shouldn't have gone near the place.
He has paid for his misstep with demotion back to House leader, a penalty softer than the ejection from cabinet he should have suffered. But if this and Mr. Eggleton's fate are the measure of Mr. Chrétien's new interest in cabinet integrity, why is Denis Coderre still the Immigration Minister? As a newly elected backbencher in 1997, he spent several nights at the condo of Groupe Everest president Claude Boulay, whose firm later benefited from sponsorship contracts Mr. Coderre lobbied for when he became secretary of state for amateur sport in 1999. Both Mr. Coderre and Mr. Boulay flatly denied in a 2000 interview with The Globe and Mail that Mr. Coderre had used the condo, and Mr. Coderre's latest explanation -- that he slept there, but he didn't really have use of it -- is lame.
And if favouring friends, as Mr. Eggleton did, is a firing offence, why did Mr. Chrétien not fire Mr. Gagliano, instead of waiting for a cabinet shuffle to reward him with a diplomatic posting to Denmark? Mr. Gagliano had asked Jon Grant, the head of the arm's-length Crown corporation Canada Lands Co., to hire one of his friends, and then denied last year that he had done anything of the sort. Mr. Chrétien insisted that Mr. Gagliano had his full confidence.
The truth is, Mr. Chrétien should have put his own name on Sunday's list. His tolerance of ethical breaches in recent years has been unacceptably high. For instance, he didn't fire Hedy Fry for citing a non-existent letter from the mayor of Prince George to justify her statement to the House that (non-existent) crosses were being burned in Prince George; he waited nine months to lose her in a cabinet shuffle. And his own behaviour has given his ministers to abuse their positions.
In 1996 and 1997, Mr. Chrétien lobbied François Beaudoin, then head of the federal Business Development Bank, for a $615,000 loan to an inn in his riding run by Yvon Duhaime, who had bought the inn from a company partly owned by Mr. Chrétien. The inn sits next to a golf course in which Mr. Chrétien may have had a stake; the course had been sold, but the payment for it hadn't been received.
Two points of note: The bank had previously rejected the loan, which did not meet the bank's internal guidelines; after Mr. Chrétien's intercession, the loan was granted. And for more than two years, Mr. Chrétien denied having had any personal involvement in securing the loan. Only in 2000, after Mr. Beaudoin filed a wrongful dismissal suit, did Mr. Chrétien admit to having phoned Mr. Beaudoin and urged him in person to grant the loan. Mr. Chrétien's continued presence signals his ministers that it is all right to play fast and loose with public funds.
If Mr. Chrétien is truly intent on cleaning house, he will set the tone by announcing his own resignation. There are many other reasons for him to go, not least that his clinging to power has become an increasing distraction for a government with several ministers fighting openly to replace him. But the climate of ethical laxness he has presided over for so long is grounds enough to ask that he do what, until Sunday, he was unwilling to do to other deserving ministers: fire himself.