May 16, 2006

Canada Conservatives seek to benefit from scandal

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's minority Conservative
government quickly went on the political offensive on Tuesday
after an official investigation revealed more problems with a
controversial long gun registry set up by the previous Liberal

Treasury Board Minister John Baird said the report showed
the Liberals -- who lost power in an election in January after
more than 12 years in office -- had been guilty of "serious
abuses and mismanagement."

The Conservatives narrowly won the election after a
campaign that focused on what they said was Liberal corruption.

The Liberals set up the registry of rifles and shotguns in
1995 as an anti-crime measure and promised it would cost
taxpayers a net C$2 million ($1.8 million).

By 2005, the total had spiraled to C$946 million due to
long delays and the increasingly complex nature of the computer
system needed to run the registry, which is operated by the
Canada Firearms Center.

Auditor-General Sheila Fraser -- who first revealed the
extent of the problem in a scathing 2002 report -- said on
Tuesday that the bureaucrats running the center had hidden
excess expenditures of C$22 million in 2004.

"In our opinion, Parliament was misinformed about the costs
the Center had incurred and as a result, Parliament's control
of government spending was improperly limited," Fraser wrote in
a report, saying the matter was very serious.

Under the Canadian political system, only Parliament can
authorize the spending of government funds.

"This final volume of the auditor-general's saga of Liberal
mismanagement, waste and scandal is a painful conclusion to
their 13 years in power ... this is deplorable," Baird said.

The Conservatives are keen to keep the pressure on the
Liberals, who will not choose a new leader until December and
who could then quickly find themselves on the campaign trail.

There is widespread speculation that Prime Minister Stephen
Harper -- who only controls 125 of the 308 seats in Parliament
-- will call an election early next year in a bid to strengthen
his grip on power.

Fraser also complained that "key meetings held and
decisions taken by the government were documented poorly, if at
all" and said the quality of the registry's database was

The Liberals preferred to focus on the section where Fraser
said the registry is now being run well.

"I don't believe the government was engaged in deliberate
attempts to mislead Parliament," said Liberal Member of
Parliament Irwin Cotler, the former justice minister.

The Conservatives ran on a law-and-order platform but have
long promised to scrap the gun registry, which is particularly
unpopular in rural parts of Canada where the party's support is
strong. Most hand guns are already banned in Canada.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day is due to speak on
Wednesday about the future of the registry, which can only be
shut down by a vote in Parliament. Harper currently does not
have the support of enough legislators to succeed.

Canadian media say Harper will look at other ways of
curbing the program, such as cutting its funding and also
offering an amnesty to the tens of thousands of long gun owners
who have yet to register their firearms.

($1=$1.11 Canadian)