A casual lawlessness has crept into the high offices of the land.
It is not outright criminality, punishable by fines and jail time (at least not yet). It is an attitude among those entrusted with power that they don’t have to play by the rules; that wrongdoing carries no consequences; and that a half-hearted apology will set everything right.
Any Canadian could come up with half a dozen examples.
• Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is the obvious one. His behaviour has set a new low for civic office — he hangs out with known gang members, brazenly lies to the public and admits he has smoked crack cocaine “probably in one of my drunken stupors” — yet he refuses to vacate the office he has defiled.
• Prime Minister Stephen Harper has tossed aside long-standing parliamentary tenets and ethical standards. He stuffed the Senate with free-spending loyalists, then turned on his appointees viciously when their expenses leaked out. He maligned his former chief of staff who spent $90,000 of his own money trying to fix the Senate mess. After his party broke Canada’s election rules, he unilaterally tried to rewrite them. He has been rebuked by the Supreme Court of Canada five times for overstepping his mandate.
• Brampton Mayor Susan Fennell helped herself to ratepayers’ money for at least five years to pay for luxury hotels, high-priced dinners, first-class airfare and entertainment. She insists she has done nothing wrong.
• Former Alberta premier Alison Redford likewise used taxpayers’ money to pay for indulgences she considered her due. Six weeks ago, after spending an eye-popping $45,000 to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa, she stepped down blaming “party and caucus infighting” for obstructing progress in the province. Since her resignation she has not set foot in the legislature although she continues to collect her salary as an MLA.
• Jason Kenney opened Ottawa’s floodgate to hundreds of thousands of foreign temporary workers during his five-year tenure as immigration minister. The influx undermined the domestic labour market, inducing employers to hire abroad rather than advertise job vacancies at home. He had become employment minister by the time the damage came to light. The ever-adaptable Albertan transformed himself from enabler to enforcer. “Our government will not tolerate any abuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program,” he vowed, leaving small businesses in the lurch.
• Pierre Poilievre, Harper’s hyper-partisan minister of state for democratic reform, took it upon himself to change Canada’s election rules after the Tories were caught spreading false voting information in the last vote. His bill would have disqualified thousands of voters: frail seniors, disabled citizens, students living away from home and members of remote First Nations. With no evidence, he maintained “regular Canadians” supported the legislation. Finally the outcry became so loud that he amended it.
These are just today’s top-of- mind names. Eighteen months ago, the list would have included Dalton McGuinty, then premier of Ontario; Vic Toews, then minister of public safety; and Peter MacKay, then defence minister.
There is nothing new about scandal in Canadians politics. History is replete with tales of ministers on the take, greedy public officials and corrupt mayors.
What has changed is that wrongdoers are no longer required — or even expected — to take responsibility for their actions. They don’t offer to resign. They don’t acknowledge they forfeited the confidence of the public. What they do instead is lash out at the government watchdogs who caught them, the journalists who exposed their malfeasance and the judges who applied the brakes.
To maintain this state of affairs, three conditions are necessary:
The first is an unprecedented level of secrecy or obfuscation by public officials.
The second is a sizable bloc of voters that can be counted on to support a besmirched leader no matter what he or she does.
The third is an electorate so unconcerned — or jaded — that it does nothing.
All three of these conditions currently exist in Canada; not in every jurisdiction but in several of the most prominent centres of government.
The antidote to what ails the body politic is obvious: eradicate the conditions that allow it to thrive.
Demand straight answers from those who are paid to serve the public and make it clear their jobs are on the line. Summon up the will to outvote the “bedrock supporters” who keep discredited politicians in power. Care a little more about Canada.