Canadian political scandals rarely receive much ink or airtime from the American media. I'm sure the reaction of most Americans to any inquiry as to the "Mulroney-Schreiber Affair" would elicit a response along the lines of "the who-who affair".
But this is potentially a very big scandal still unfolding in Canada.
Brian Mulroney served as Prime Minister of Canada, head of our government, from September 1984 through June of 1993. As prime minister, Mulroney racked up several notable accomplishments along with some major defeats and embarrassments. He has been lauded for his support for the campaign to end Apartheid in South Africa as well as his progressive policies on the environment (for the day). His major policy achievements remain controversial though no government has made any serious attempt to reverse them: signing the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States and a major change in national sales taxes which replaced the old Manufacturer's Sales Tax with the Goods and Services Tax (GST). On the negative side of the balance sheet Mulroney's two failed attempts to amend the Canadian Constitution (the Meech Lake Accord which failed at the political level and the Charlottetown Accord which was soundly defeated in a referendum) and the numerous cabinet ministers who resigned from his government under clouds of suspicion had a lot to do with Mulroney's historically low approval ratings (9%) at the time of his resignation from office.
Anecdotally, I can tell you that as a 50 year old Canadian with almost 40 years of political involvement behind me, Mulroney is the only prime minister I ever heard assassination jokes about. (Canada has never had the head of its government assassinated.)
Now, years after Mulroney has left office, another political scandal harkening back to his days in office is causing him and his successor much discomfort.
Brian Mulroney was the last man to hold the prime ministers office as the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. That party fractured into multiple pieces partly as a result of Mulroney's failures and unpopularity. His failed attempts to amend the constitution and bring the province of Quebec on board as a signatory led to the departure from his party of several Quebec based members of parliament to form the seperatist Bloc Quebecois, a movement which still holds significant representation in the national parliament after six federal elections. The other major movement born out of disaffected Progressive Conservatives was the Western based Reform Party of Canada. Reform wanted to bring the party and the country further to the right of the political spectrum. The party ran candidates in three federal elections, becoming the Official Opposition party at its peak, before attempting to merge with the remaining rump of the Progressive Conservatives. That first attempt, through a process called the United Alternative created a new party called the Canadian Alliance (officially the Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance party, but the acronym CCRAP quickly led them to abandon most of their name). The Alliance ran candidates in only one election, barely advancing the seat count of the old Reform Party. This led, finally, to the real merger of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance (the order of the words changed to avoid the CCRAP tag) into simply the Conservative Party of Canada.
After years in the wilderness, the Conservatives returned to power in 2006 with the election of current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, in a minority parliament situation. Harper has since won re-election in 2008, but still only managed to secure another minority government.
In the interim, the details involving former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber slowly started to come to light. About a decade ago Canada's national police force the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) accused Mulroney and a provincial politician of accepting kickbacks fom Mr. Schreiber over the sale of Airbus passenger jets to Air Canada, then a publicly owned airline. Mulroney launched a very public lawsuit against the government for $50 million for defamation, and an out of court settlement won Mulroney a public apology and millions in legal fees.
Since then it has emerged that Mulroney did accept some $300,000 in cash payments from Schreiber (money exchanged hands in envelopes in places like New York city hotel rooms), though the two men disagree as to what the payments were for and Schreiber is reportedly suing Mulroney for the money claiming non-performance. At least one of the payments was made while Mulroney was still a sitting member of Canadian parliament, though after he'd left the prime minister's office.
A government inquiry into the whole sordid affair is now getting underway. Stephen Harper, current leader of the reconstituted Conservative Party and prime minister of Canada, has tried to distance himself from Mulroney to avoid being tarnished by any whiff of scandal. Reports say he has ordered his MPs to cut off all contact with Mulroney and his office approved a leak to the media claiming that Mulroney was no longer a member of the party. Mulroney's spokesman has denied that his boss had left the party, claiming that he would "always be a Conservative for his entire life".
A brouhaha has opened up within the party between Mulroney loyalists and the old Reform Party members who came into politics because of their loathing for the man.
The scandal, as it unfolds, could lead to criminal charges against a former Prime Minister of Canada, could lead to the fracturing of the Conservative Party of Canada that took a decade to recover, at least in part, from the last mortal blow Mulroney helped deliver to it and could alter the Canadian political landscape significantly. Of course, its also possible that the whole things will blow over, that Mulroney will not be found to have broken any laws and that the Conservatives will patch over their differences and carry on.
Still, one must say that the whole mess fails the smell test.