The Spectator in the Spotlight: Liveblogging Norm Spector at the Oliphant Inquiry - Macleans.ca

The Spectator in the Spotlight: Liveblogging Norm Spector at the Oliphant Inquiry

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Given his performance at the Ethics committee — and not to mention what he’s written for his Globe and Mail-hosted blog in the leadup to today’s appearance before the Oliphant inquiry, this morning’s appearance by former Mulroney chief of staff Norm Spector could be fascinating.

9:15:12 AM
Welcome back to the Oliphant Show! Which may be a morning-only special today, since nobody knows just what Norm Spector is going to be asked – and what he’ll say in response. Will he claim that Mulroney told him to put a bullet in the Bear Head project once and for all? Will he recall details of conversations with forgetful witnesses, past and present? Will he seize the opportunity to lecture the media encampment on our wicked, wicked ways? Will he be sporting his signature cap? Wait, is he one with the hat, or am I confusing him with another columnist? All these questions and more may be answered in mere minutes, so stay tuned!

9:24:06 AM
Seriously, this hat thing is going to drive me crazy. Oh, also – apparently – and this is not yet official, but we should know for sure later today – on Monday, we’ll finally get to hear from Elmer MacKay — by webcam, I’m assuming — as well as — drum rull — Luc Lavoie. Oh, that should be fun. On Tuesday, it will be former PCO clerk Paul Tellier, and Senator Lowell Murray. On Wednesday, the forensic accountants from Navigant (no relation other than etymological, don’t worry) will be the first witnesses to take the stand that have absolutely no stake in the proceedings.

And on Thursday, it will be the return of Karlheinz Schreiber, who hasn’t actually gone anywhere, what with staking out the hearings from behind his counsel’s shoulder. No word on for when the bells toll, but I’ll keep you posted.

9:32:17 AM
And with that, we’re up — wow, that was quick, and no, no cap. Spector looks benevolently wary, and is sworn in on the Old Testament before Nancy Brooks – who is up for Team Inquiry today – gets him to provide a quick overview of his background, which he does.

9:36:14 AM
After going through his CV, which isn’t exactly a well-kept secret, as far as his various iterations as a public/political servant, depending on the era, we get – oh, neat: a description of Langevin Block during the Mulroney era; the office that Spector used when he would meet with the then-PM, which he suggests may have taken place more often during his tenure as chief of staff as the Burney years – and his relationship with PCO — very good, since he was, of course, One Of Them, a seconded public servant. He also confirms that he attended cabinet meetings, as well as cabinet committee, including the “decisive, streamlined” operations committee, at none of which, he says, did Bear Head come up. Really, that’s been the only theme so far in his testimony — Bear Head? Nowhere on *his* radar.

9:40:15 AM
Asked about the goings-on between lobbyists and the PM, Spector says that he never arranged meetings between the third point five estate and Mulroney, although he notes that the PM was an “inveterate” phonecaller, so he may well have set those up directly. “He kept the PMO switchboard in business,” Spector recalls. Man, imagine if there had been BlackBerries back then.

9:43:08 AM
And finally, the Bear rears its Head — at a meeting between Mulroney and Spector in late 1992, at which the PM expressed his frustration at the project being blocked by the Defence department, and his desire to have his newly appointed Chief of Staff “bring it to fruition” – although Spector notes those are *his* words, not the former PM. Anyway, this was the first and only time that he was handed that kind of assignment; usually, he recalls, these things were handled by PCO. The first thing he did was call up Bob Fowler, since Defence was being “identified” as the “black sheep.” He asked Fowler directly if they were “screwing around”, and Fowler assured him that the department had good reason to object to the plan. Spector even queried him on whether there were any conflicts of interest as far as the other supplier involved, and was assured that there were not.

9:53:44 AM
Alright, sorry about that delay — seriously, I don’t know what’s going on with my BlackBerry these days; it’s just randomly deciding that the page is “too large for the device” and is definitely making me think it could be time for an upgrade of Red Delicious to something a bit more — feisty. Anyway, Spector describes the cabinet committee meeting to “crunch” the decision, and notes that the then-Defence Minister, Bill McKnight, wasn’t as obstreperous as expected, which you’d think would mark the first step towards a truce, but no — there was that Understanding in Principle lurking out there, of which Spector was, at the time, unaware, and nobody was following his instructions. PCO laid down the law, issuing a memo to remind everyone that the process was underway, and nobody – yes, that meant you, too, Elmer – was supposed to interfere.

9:58:02 AM
MacKay’s actions constituted a “full court press”, according to Spector, as far as driving the decision at cabinet; he doesn’t actually remember talking to the then-ACOA minister at the time, but he did have a chat with the Clerk, Paul Tellier, about what was going down in cabinet, and the financial implications at stake.

As far as Spector can recall, the figure *he* gave Mulroney as the total cost for the Bear Head project was somewhere around $765 million, which was a lot of money back in 1990!

Brooks is doing a very good job, btw – cool, methodical and civil, but no nonsense. I wonder how she’d have done with Schreiber.

Anyway, Spector calls the memo from Tellier “very kind” to the officials involved in the skirmish for “carrying out their mandate”, but then rewrote most of it so Spector could tell the PM how much it would cost to make this happen.

10:05:08 AM
Oliphant is intrigued by the phrase “very kind”, to describe the memo — he wonders if that’s a nice way of saying that the paper prepared by officials was not exactly what had been expected. Spector explains that he was being “euphemistic”; really, Tellier had to rewrite the whole thing to ensure that the actual question — how much is this going to cost us? — would be answered.

At that point, Spector recalls, he had the makings of his briefing-to-be with the PM, who, in Spector’s view, had thought that the project wouldn’t cost a sense. That briefing took place in early December, 1990 on the way to a speech the PM was going to deliver on his planned constitutional initiative — oh, how did that work out? — in the back of a limo. Spector informed him that a good chunk of taxpayer money would be involved, and at that point, the PM told him that, in that case, the project was dead.

10:11:06 AM
Another memo — this one from Billings and Gentles, both officials at PCO — that described the outcome of that briefing, which is written in the most cautious – but stark – of civil service language, and describes the subsequent chat between MacKay and Mulroney, at which the PM “expressed shock” and asked MacKay to confirm the numbers, which Spector doesn’t actually remember. That conversation in the limo, he says, was the last he ever heard on the matter — well, other than Spector calling Fowler to tell him the substance of the conversation. He didn’t bother to inform ACOA, because he wanted both Fowler and Tellier to know the project “no longer had the backing of the prime minister”, although he didn’t use those *exact* words. His opinion, however, both then and even moreso now, was fairly clearcut: “This project only survived as long as it did because it was perceived to have the backing of the prime minister.” So once Mulroney pulled his support, as far as Spector was concerned, the project was dead as a dodo with a doornail through its heart, its only remaining standard-bearer ACOA.

10:18:09 AM
Tellier wrote memos “as the guardian of the process”, but as far as his relationship with Spector, they didn’t bother with that — they just chatted on the phone. Not, he adds immediately, because of those pesky Access to Information laws; it’s just how they worked.

10:19:54 AM
More memos – these from the ACOA files, where the minister of the day — MacKay, still, I believe — was *still* fighting to keep Bear Head alive. Despite the PM bailing on the project, ACOA was apparently still so keen that it was looking for an “alternate route” to the Operations committee; Spector has no idea what MacKay could possibly have had in mind, since “he knew what I was up to.” From what I can see, that route may have involved a strategic bypass of the chief of staff, who had outed himself as an opponent of the Thyssen proposal.

10:24:41 AM
After Brook finishes parsing the never-say-die letter to the PM from MacKay, Spector tells her that he didn’t see it at the time it was sent, which makes Brooks curious: How was this sort of corresponence to the prime minister handled? According to Spector, he wasn’t involved with that particular pneumatic tube to PMO — it was handled by a former assistant to Derek Burney, apparently — and he had assumed that MacKay was in constant – or at least regular – communication on the file; after all, who else would have told the PM that this would be a cost-free project? At the time, Spector reminds her, he had no idea that Mulroney had any dealings with Schreiber or Doucet, so MacKay seemed the most likely source of that particular lobbytrope.

10:30:23 AM
Wolson – who is here, but has apparently decided to give Brooks the spotlight for the moment – is watching Spector very, very intently as he – the witness, that is – describes how very, very surprised he was to learn, years later, that even after he had assumed that Bear Head had been buried once and for all, it just kept on going for several more years, albeit safely tucked away under the aegis of PCO; out of sight and out of mind, as far as the realm chief of staff.

10:34:10 AM
“It’s a very brave bureaucrat who takes on the chief of staff to the prime minister,” Spector notes, which is why it’s better for PMO to limit the number of files it handles directly. Brooks seems to want to move on, but Spector isn’t going to be deprived of his opportunity to get his main point out: If the details of Bear Head, Thyssen and the $4 million payment had come out at the time, it would have been a major story.

Brooks does her best not to sound annoyed as she points out that this isn’t, actually, what she was asking, and with that, she suggests that this would be an excellent time to start the midmorning break. The judge agrees, and we’re let out for recess. See you back here at 11am.

10:50:02 AM
So, are we having fun yet? Spector seems to be enjoying himself, although unlike his experience before the Ethics committee, he’s having some difficulty making a sudden segue into one of his trademark lectures on the nature of government. Not giving witnesses ten minutes of freetime quasipolitical philosophizing really does make for a better hearing, as it turns out, although I don’t hold out much hope that the trend will catch on — not on the Hill, at least.

Anyway, there’s not much new coming out of Spector’s testimony so far, although he’s definitely laying the groundwork for a lively session with Elmer MacKay on Monday. And Luc Lavoie! Is it wrong that I’m really looking forward to analysing Schreiber’s body language during the latter’s appearance?

You really have to wonder whether Spector now suspects that he was simply cut out of the loop after he injected what was, unbeknownst to him, a most unwelcome dose of reality into the Bear Head debate. Did Mulroney send him off to get a full costing of the project with every expectation that it would be *good* news, from his perspective? And was he simply removed from the loop after he became the bearer of very different kind? No pun intended, I swear.

Really, forget that poor cat; what we seem to have here is Schrodinger’s Bear Head.

11:05:31 AM
Okay, we’re back, and Spector has finally wrangled back the mic in order to Tell It Like It Is, from his point of view, thanks to a politely open question from Brooks. He explains how he came to understand that the cat *was* alive, all along, only relatively recently — at the Ethics committee, in fact — which was when he became aware that his former boss’ testimony at the defamation trial may not have been accurate.

11:07:36 AM
Back to the memos – a March 1991 offering from Tellier, which discussed an upcoming visit by Schreiber to Ottawa to discuss Thyssen, and a possible proposal for a plant in Nova Scotia; at the time, he took it as a “warning” — Schreiber was at large, break out the bear repellant — which is why, he says, he believed that the recipient passed it along.

11:09:53 AM
Was Spector aware of Doucet’s – Fred, that is – involvement in this file? No, he wasn’t — he didn’t find out about that until the Ethics committee. See? It *wasn’t* a waste of time and money. Take that, Ethics bashers!

Anyway, Spector didn’t discuss the March 1991 memo with the PM – you’d think he would have wanted to pass on that little heads up, given that he thought Mulroney had given up on the project – and he repeats that the conversation in the limo was the last time it came up.

11:12:50 AM
A mid 1992 memo to then-not-yet-a-senator Hugh Segal, who was the PM’s chief of staff at the time, from Privy Council Clerk Glen Shortliffe that discussed a plan to move the plant to Quebec; Spector tells the inquiry that he never heard that particular proposal during his tenure at PMO.

11:15:17 AM
Ooh, a new document: this time, handwritten notes, prepared by Paul Herring, according to Brooks, that are the minutes of the meeting between McKnight, MacKay and Spector; we – the media table – haven’t gotten our hands on it yet, but Spector seems nonplussed by the revelations contained within, mostly as far as it depicts *his* role at the meeting – apparently McKnight was “not amused” by his actions. Much back and forth between the lawyers on whether it can be submitted; Mulroney’s lawyers seem wary, but not hostile to its admission. Brooks points out that there are similar documents already in the binder; Vicary suggests that it be marked as an exhibit, just so everyone knows what is being referred to, and the judge so orders.

11:19:33 AM
And now, onto the minutes! Which are dated November 2, 1990 – the day after the meeting. In the second bullet, the Defence minister was apparently “not amused” by Spector’s position, he was “offside”, according to Defence. Spector gives his interpretation — at the beginning of the process, Defence was ‘displeased’ with him, but by the end, Elmer MacKay was unhappy. Also, according to the notes, McKnight “wanted to see the prime minister”. At least, I think it’s McKnight; it’s really rather frustrating trying to follow along without actually having a copy the document.

Meanwhile, Brooks and Spector go over the other bullet points, and eventually, the minutes are filed as exhibits. Wait, were these prepared by Gillespie? Sorry for the confusion; I’m sure all will become clear when the binder goes up.

11:24:29 AM
Finally, a memo from Schreiber to Spector; the former was coming to town in November 1990, and wanted to meet with Spector, but according to the witness, that never happened.

Brooks wonders what Spector’s reaction would be if he learned that there were, however, many meetings between Mulroney and Schreiber during the 1990-91 period; that would be “a lot of meetings”, Spector agrees — he can’t think of any other “industry representative” who would have had that kind of access to the prime minister. When she asks *why* that might be the case, one of the Mulroney counsels objects – no speculation, you! – and Brooks retreats.

11:29:05 AM
Finally, Spector’s relationship with Fred Doucet, which actually began when Spector was working for New Brunswick, and dealt with Doucet on federal-provincial issues, as well as later, during his capacity as “ambassador for summits or whatever” (I so hope that was on his business cards). He never met with him when he was Mulroney’s chief of staff, but he did occasionally see him “waiting outside the office with various individuals”, although not Schreiber.

11:32:40 AM
So Spector eventually leaves PMO, serves as ambassador (note: a *real* ambassador, mind you) for a bit and then lands at ACOA, and who should subsequently turn up at his Moncton office but the RCMP, who were in hot pursuit of the Understanding in Principle, which, it transpired, was “somewhere in our files”. What a small world it is sometimes, don’t you think? Spector, at this point, still thought that the PM’s view – as expressed in the limo – was “well anchored”, as far as Bear Head. There are even other accounts that back up that belief, he tells the inquiry — other people recalled that, after the PM got the full, unexpurgated cost projection, his support “wavered”. Spector stresses that he never actually heard Mulroney order the summary execution of the project; he just assumed that was what had happened.

11:36:58 AM

Asked whether he became “persona non grata” after he wrote the afterword to Kaplan’s second book, Spector says that happened earlier – back when he made that statement to the RCMP – but notes that he didn’t have much contact with the PM after leaving his employ, and the last time he spoke with him was in 1995. At the moment, Spector says, he has “no relationship” with the former PM.

11:38:41 AM
With that, Brooks finishes her questions, but Oliphant has just a few more: He wants to know more about that “unique assignment” from the PM, and wonders whether Mulroney ever explained why, other than that he wanted to “get it down”. Spector says he didn’t, and it looks like there aren’t going to be any more questions, until Spector’s counsel – Mr. Jordan, who *also* has a history in Manitoba, according to the judge, who jokes that people might start thinking there’s a “Western mafia”.

Anyway, Jordan heads for the lectern, and directs his client to the Tellier memos – the first one, I think – and wonders whether Spector knew that the PM had received them. No, he didn’t, and with that Spector is excused, with the following parting words from the judge: “Head back to Victoria and get back to your blogging.”

11:43:37 AM
Uh-oh. None of the other parties’ counsel seem to have gotten copies of those new – well, old – documents that Lowell Murray happened across earlier this week; the judge assures everyone that they’ll get right on that. A bit more housekeeping, and we’re out of here — for the rest of the week, in fact. Wow, shortest hearing yet.

I wonder if there will be a Spector scrum? Let’s find out!

11:48:45 AM
Well, there’s going to be an *attempt* at a scrum, at the very least: three intrepid reporters, one camera and a liveblogger are hanging around the exit, waiting for the witness to appear. Everyone else is trying to decide whether to stay here for lunch, or flee for the Market; ITQ is also considering those options.

Okay, here he comes — oh, wait, here he *was* coming, before being intercepted by Schreiber, who – oh, I couldn’t hear the details, but that looked awkward.

Anyway, now we’ve got him, and he seems far more amenable to the idea of chatting with the press than certain former prime ministers – no, the other one – and is asked again about when he learned that the project lived on. Spector notes that, actually, he didn’t think it was dead, he predicted that it *would* die — but if it hadn’t gone down in the year following that meeting, why, a reporter wonders, did he still believe it was a Dead Contract Walking? Spector reminds him that everyone in town – PCO, Defence, you name it – was against the project, and that the PM had backed away, with only ACOA still pushing for it, “nature would take its course.” Bureaucratic darwinism in action.

Does he now think that Mulroney wasn’t serious about cancelling the project? Once again, Spector won’t go that far – all that the PM said was that the project would die. He didn’t hand down an order.

11:55:52 AM
Another reporter is curious about the level of access that Schreiber had, and – oh, this might be good, Spector notes that the witness stand might not have been the best place to say this — clearly, the subsequent scrum is much better — but here was an *arms dealer* meeting with the PM on six different occasions. Given Canada’s traditional role, vis a vis military policy, that, to him, seems noteworthy.

11:57:46 AM
Yes, Spector definitely thinks there’s a problem with an arms dealer having *that* many meetings with the PM, but he doesn’t seem to be willing to draw a direct line between Schreiber – and the PM’s relationship with him – and the remarkable level of contact between the two, although he does allow that it might have played a role.

11:59:16 AM
What this commission is looking at is $300,000, Spector points out – but the real question is what happened to the $10 million in commissions? He’s not sure what will come out of this, other than more new information, but he still believes that Dr. Johnson’s report – which set up the terms of reference – was very unfortunate when he dismissed Airbus as “well-tilled ground”.

12:01:34 PM
Hey, either my French interpretation skills are worse than I thought, or Spector just said something nice about the media for asking all the right questions from the very beginning. Oh, and switching to English, he suggests that there are enterprising journalists who will dig through the treasure trove of new documents that the inquiry has produced thus far, and find more stories.

He’s mad at the PM for limiting the terms of reference, but he’s also annoyed at the Liberals for not mounting a more feisty campaign to expand the mandate of the inquiry. Does he *remember* the Liberals back then? I mean, they did their best, but feistyness was a precious resource, doled out with the greatest of care.

Spector still doesn’t know what Mulroney’s intention was in dispatching him to poke his fingers in the pie, although he admits that he didn’t mention that to his then-boss at the time.

12:05:46 PM
I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastic a scrummer Spector is proving to be. Oh, and he thinks the whole tale has the makings of a great paper for a PhD scandal, particularly the shift that occured when the Liberals took over, and the only thing that changed was that the PMO was against it, despite the fact that Marc Lalonde was every bit as good a lobbyist as the Conservatives who had preceded him.

“There is no shorter cut than to get this to the prime minister’s office,” Spector avers. All those checks and balances and accountability rules apply less to the PMO than anywhere else in government, so when he gets involved, it sends an “unmistakeable signal.”

12:10:37 PM
Schreiber’s “taste in lobbyists,” Spector notes, “was impeccable” — from Frank Moores to Marc Lalonde, the man knew who to hire to get things done.

And on that note, ITQ is going to sign off and hit the cafeteria. This was short, but sweet – and we’ll be back on Monday!