Of all the bullpucky political scandals in history, the latest series from Ottawa must be the bullpuckiest.
Italy has Berlusconi. Britain has the expenses scandal. The United States has senators arrested in men’s rooms.
And Canada? Canada has complaints that the Harper government refers to itself as the Harper government.
It’s not like Canadians are incapable of scandalous behavior. During the Chrétien years, Canadian ministers demonstrated that they could fully equal Louisiana standards of vote-buying and self-dealing. But since then? We’re reduced to complaining that Jason Kenney’s interns used the wrong BlackBerry for emailing their LOLcat videos. OK not literally that – but very close.
During America’s crack wars of the early 1990 s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a famous essay, “Defining Deviancy Down”. Moynihan’s essay warned that the U.S. was accepting as normal a level of crime that would once have seemed intolerable. Along the way, Moynihan said this:
“[In a] society of saints … faults which appear venial to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offence does in ordinary consciousness.”
The Harper government – whoops, sorry, that phrase! – is hardly composed of saints. Yet it is surely the most honest federal government Canada has produced in a very long time. And just as Moynihan predicted, the enduring human need to discover deviancy has magnified trivial problems into Parliament-shaking scandals.
When I say “human need,” I refer, of course, to the need of media institutions and opposition parties. As the Toronto Star explained in an elegantly phrased headline this week: “Opposition looks to scandal, not budget, to bring down Tories.”
The Star quoted NDP MP Pat Martin: “We want to fight them on our playing field. Why not fight them on their lack of ethics, scandals and political corruption? We want home field advantage.”
Exactly! Jobs, economic management, taxes, spending – as Pat Martin implicitly acknowledges, those issues all belong to the Harper government. (Sorry, sorry, I did it again.) What’s the opposition’s field? The burning question of whether the appointments secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources took home from the staff cafeteria a couple of extra packages of NutraSweet “for later.”
What makes a real scandal? Take a trip down memory lane.
Suppose the federal government – this time I don’t have to say the Harper government – were to direct hundreds of millions of public dollars to private persons. Suppose those persons did little or no work for that money. Suppose those money-receiving persons then kicked back a big part of that money to the governing party in the form of campaign contributions. Now that would be a scandal!
This is the outline of what happened in the sponsorship scandal. Nobody asked then, “What’s all this about?” It was clear and obvious: The abuse of political power to divert public funds to personal gain.
The sponsorship scandal is not the only kind of political scandal, of course. There are sex scandals, and violations of election law, and attempts to use power to gain immunity from ordinary laws.
There are scandals in which no law is broken, like the U.K.’s release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. There are scandals in which the broken laws do not command much public support. Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal combined both elements. (Reagan survived the scandal because the Iran part of Iran-Contra was unpopular but legal, and the Contra part was doubtfully legal but popular.)
It is important for democracies to be vigilant against abuses of power. Yet at the same time, the promiscuous invention of scandal where none exists is dangerous to democracy as well.
The promiscuous invention of scandal is dangerous because it does harm to good people. But even worse: The promiscuous invention of scandal gives cover to bad people.
After all: If the bullpucky scandals concocted in the past few weeks were truly as bad as the scandals of the Chrétien years, then it would logically follow that the scandals of the Chrétien years were no worse than the bullpucky scandals. And wouldn’t that be convenient for the authors of the Chrétien-era scandals?
“Everybody does it” is the bad man’s favorite excuse. And so the bad man makes it his life’s mission to spread the belief that “everybody does.” Create enough noise, and maybe the unwary will be duped – or enough of them anyway.
It’s time to move Canadian politics back to what Pat Martin so aptly called “home field.” It’s not only the, ahem, Harper government’s home field. It’s also the home field of most Canadians. Canadians want a government that is honest, competent and responsible. They have got that government. And if they are sent to the polls by an opportunistic opposition on a bogus scandal whoop-whoop, Canadians will certainly reelect it.
Originally published in the National Post.