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June 19, 2013

The Watergate legacy has come north of the border

Geoffrey Stevens

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It may seem like yesterday, but it was 40 years ago this summer that the notorious Watergate scandal burst on our consciousness.

I spent part of that summer of 1973 in Western Canada — in Vancouver for the Liberal (party) Conference on Western Objectives, in Winnipeg for the national NDP convention, and in Calgary for Pierre Trudeau's much-hyped Western Economic Opportunities Conference ("WEOC," to its friends). Does anyone out there remember WEOC? I thought not.

Confession time. I don't remember WEOC either, or much about the other two gatherings. Every day, after sitting through hours of mind-numbing political blather, journalists rushed to the nearest TV, to watch the rivetting hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee, chaired by the inimitable Sam Ervin of North Carolina. It was a very big deal; we're told the 319 broadcast hours of those committee proceedings reached 85 per cent of American households.

The committee unpeeled layer after layer of official denial and evasion to lay bare a rich tale of deceit, cynicism, prevarication, criminality, misuse of political funds and obstruction of justice — a tale that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon the following summer.

Back then, Canadians felt a bit superior and just a tad smug. Compared to the Americans', our government was open and transparent. We had no Richard Nixons, Spiro Agnews, John Mitchells or H.R. Haldemans. We had no "plumbers" or enemies' lists or secret slush funds to finance unethical political activity. We didn't delete or destroy tapes or records. Certainly, no one accused our leaders of lying.

We are not so smug these days. While I am not going to suggest Canada has sunk into Watergate muck, there are things going on here that evoke the odour of that great American scandal. At Queen's Park, police are investigating two senior officials in the former McGuinty Liberal government who, ignoring their own rules about the preservation of records, deleted many emails dealing with that government's politically expedient (and costly) decision to cancel two gas-fired hydro plants. They didn't even bother to claim the deletions were an accident, as the Nixon people did in Watergate.

At Toronto City Hall, most of the political news features crackheads, thugs armed with iron pipes and the frantic search for an incriminating video. In Ottawa, we have a vote-suppression scheme called "robocall," plus serial election spending scandals (just last week the chief electoral officer called for the suspension of two more Conservative MPs), not to mention an ever-deepening Senate expense scandal.

Some of the paranoia and passion for secrecy that were hallmarks of the Nixon White House have reached the Prime Minister's Office. We learned last week of a secret fund, reportedly $1 million, that is controlled by the Stephen Harper's chief of staff and used for partisan political purposes. We are not allowed to know what those purposes are, who contributed to the fund, whether they received tax credits for their contributions, and whether the donors were informed that their money was going into what may amount to a Watergate-style slush fund in the Prime Minister's Officer.

We know that Nigel Wright, then Harper's chief of staff, bailed out Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy to the tune of $90,000 before investigations of the profligate senator could do more damage to the Conservative brand. The prime minister tells the country that Wright used his personal funds to help Duffy. That may be true. But if it is true, why does the prime minister not do what Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair requests: arrange to let Parliament see Wright's cheque?

The Opposition, with some cause, doesn't trust this prime minister. Opposition MPs will not believe the cheque exists until they see it. Until then, they will suspect that Wright dipped into the Prime Minister's Officer slush fund he controlled to pay off the troublesome Duffy.

The legacy of Watergate was chronic suspicion, diminished faith in the political system and loss of trust in political leaders. That legacy has come to Canada.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at .

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