If you’re a Canadian, be advised: Your government doesn’t want you to know what lies herein. If you’re a blogger in Canada, you may actually get in legal trouble for linking to this column.
Our neighbors to the north have been rocked for the past two years by a political scandal, nicknamed Adscam, wherein advertising companies, ostensibly hired to run ads for the government, got enormous contracts for doing little or no work; the money has long been rumored to have slid back into the campaigns of Liberals, Canada’s ruling party of the left.
Prime Minister Paul Martin appointed a commission last year, led by Justice John H. Gomery, to investigate the scandal. While most of the Gomery Commission’s activities have been public, some of the most explosive testimony is subject to a “publication ban,” for the stated reason that it may bias related criminal trials.
But unlike secret grand jury testimonies here in the States, the Gomery Commission is not acting in private. The contents of the testimony are an open secret in Ottawa, where the proceedings are open to the public and a TV feed is broadcast to many newsrooms. In other words, the testimony is accessible to the political and journalistic elite, just not to the average Canadian, who the Liberals have apparently been robbing for years.
Or rather that was the case, until someone leaked information on some of the banned-in-Canada testimony to Ed Morrissey, the Minnesota-based proprietor of Captain’s Quarters, who, like all Americans, is as impervious to Canadian censorship as Superman is to bullets. (Canadians are flocking to Morrissey’s blog in huge numbers, so be patient if it takes longer than usual to load.) Morrissey has published numerous details on the testimony of Jean Brault, president of the ad agency Groupaction, that Canadian reporters can’t.
The “sponsorship program” guaranteed a monopoly on government advertising for five Liberal-connected firms, including Groupaction. Morrissey reports that according to Brault’s testimony, the sponsorship program developed into a $250 million slush fund, over $100 million of which was paid to these firms for doing next to nothing. (It is not always clear from Morrissey’s reporting when he is talking about US or Canadian dollars; the Canadian dollar is currently worth about 82 US cents.)
In return, Brault says he participated in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of transactions designed to benefit the Liberal Party. He says that he hired “employees” who were in fact working full time for the Liberals, including then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s brother Gaby. Brault also testified that he paid invoices to other companies for work actually done for Liberal campaigns, and that he made large, untraceable cash donations to Liberal officials.
Why is Morrissey reporting all this? Why am I repeating it? Quite simply, the publication ban is an abomination. The condescending notion that the jury in Brault’s criminal trial might be irretrievably biased by media reports hardly justifies keeping ordinary Canadians in the dark about things that Ottawa’s cognoscenti can’t stop talking about. Canadian television reporters show images of Brault weeping on the stand, but then say, farcically, they can’t reveal what made him break down. (He’d just recounted how he was told to hire a Liberal crony or lose a contract with Via Rail, Canada’s state-run passenger train service.) Canada’s attorney general has already talked about pursuing Canadian bloggers merely for linking to Captain’s Quarters, possibly charging them with contempt of court. What makes the ban especially disturbing is the rumor that the Liberals could call a snap election before the testimony becomes public to avoid accountability at the polls.
As Canadian blogger and sometime TAS contributor Colby Cosh notes, free expression is a fundamental right under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Judges are advised to use publication bans sparingly and with grave concern for Charter principles, and — unlike many Canadian judges — Gomery actually did so, in such a way that suggests he might be amenable to lifting the ban. The efficacy of the ban is a factor in the decision to lift it or continue it; the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that an infringement on Charter liberties must have a “rational connection” to the intended benefit. If Americans are reporting what Canadians cannot, the argument for the ban weakens. And so, writes Cosh, “it would actively help free the hands of Canadian webloggers and reporters if our foreign cousins were to be aggressive about “publishing” the substance of the Brault testimony outside the reach of Canadian law” (emphasis his).
Happy to oblige.