Canada’s Bogus Scandal Frenzy

March 14th, 2011 at 10:35 am David Frum | 21 Comments |

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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.

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21 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    Oh dear, it sounds as if DF is getting nervous about Harper’s re-election prospects. As far as I can tell this bit of opinionating seems to boil down to… yes Harper’s govt has been involved in scandals, but they weren’t very big scandals, and anyway the Chretien govt was also involved in scandals. Which was why at the time DF insisted they should be voted out of office. There’s a certain circularity about this polemic which seems to have escaped DF.

    • Carney

      What you carefully and for obvious partisan reasons refuse to acknowledge is the central point of DF’s piece, which is the issue of SCALE. Whatever “scandal” the Harper administration is accused of does not remotely compare to the flagrant corruption of the Chretien years.

      • ottovbvs

        Scale is very much in the eye of the beholder. I”m sure you think Iran/Contra was minor and Clinton telling porkies about sex was immense. What David means is he gets to decide what constitutes flagrant corruption. Some of the stuff the Harpers govt has been caught up in is not exactly minor.

        • John Frodo

          The AD scam was small potatoes, Harper spends more than that on a month on dubious polling advertising , consultants and other bull.

        • karsten.erzinger

          Would love to see some proof to back up those ridiculous accusations. Harper hasnt been perfect, but he has been in comparison to the awful Chretien years.

      • sunroof

        David is right. There isn’t an abundance of scandal in the current Canadian government. But there is a serial contempt for Parliamentary democracy that far outstrips anything that the recent Martin, Chretien or Mulroney governments displayed. While people in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia die for their right to democracy, Harper displays a callous, conceited neglect of Canadian democratic procedures and institutions.

    • Rose21

      I think the biggest source of contempt for Parliament are the Committees that have been hijacked by the Opposition for purely partisan mudslinging. Why was Bev Oda (whom I don’t believe did lie) being interrogated by these people for a decision that she was totally authorized to make? Why were Jaffer (a private citizen) and his business partner — who never even got any money — being investigated by a Parliamentary committee?? The behaviour of the Opposition in this minority Parliament has been outrageous.

  • PatrickQuint–opposition-looks-to-scandals-not-budget-to-bring-down-tories?bn=1

    “The Conservatives, who have deftly avoided having controversies stick to them over five years of minority government, are now fighting allegations on several fronts, including International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda misleading Parliament and doctoring a document, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney using his office to raise money for the Conservative Party, and Harper’s office directing that the federal government be known as the Harper government.

    Adding to their woes, Elections Canada has laid charges against the Conservative party and four of its members — including two senators — over alleged violations of election spending rules during the 2006 federal campaign.

    Elections Canada has accused the Conservative party of “willfully” exceeding an $18 million campaign spending limit in the election, which resulted in Harper’s Conservatives winning a minority.”

    The election issues, where local candidates ran national ads on the local budget rather than the national budget.

    On Bev Oda doctoring a document, by adding a “not” to flip the opinion after the staffers signed off. The change meant that $7m in funding was denied to the faith-based human rights group named KAIROS.

    “Kenney has been under fire over a letter his office sent to Conservative riding associations calling on them to donate $200,000 to the party for an advertising campaign targeted at ethnic voters. The letter was printed on Kenney’s official MP letterhead. The opposition has accused Kenney of using government resources for partisan purposes.”

    Read more:

    So… misuse of letterhead, running federal ads with local money, and forging a document to deny funding to a faith-based human rights group. That seems to be the extent of the substantive stuff.

    If you gave me a choice between a government who gave me jobs and suffered scandals like this, or a squeaky-clean government that fumbled the economy, I’d choose the former any day. In a heartbeat.

    Take Rob Ford in Toronto. The guy has a reputation as a blowhard, and the damnedest things come out of his mouth on a regular basis. However, he talked about fiscal responsibility (and was credible on it), so he got elected. Hell, he even had a letterhead scandal a while back. That didn’t stop him.

    • ottovbvs

      Except you’re ignoring the fact that the regulatory climate etc which largely allowed Canada to avoid the worst of meltdown was a product of Liberal governance. Harper came to power in 2006 and the meltdonw in the US started in the third quarter of that year. Harper happened to lucky. But you need some luck. I’m no great expert on Canadian politics but a Canadian buddy of mine (whose actually a conservative) thinks the Liberals have a fair shot at getting back in if there’s an election this spring.

      • UncleLew

        And let’s not forget that Harper, like a certain Bush, came into power with a nice surplus left behind by the Liberals. In no time at all, Harper just blew it and has given Canada its largest deficit ever. A good example of fiscal recklessness was the Harper regime’s untendered purchase of F35 jets. The regime’s estimate was $16 billion. It is now put at $30 billion.
        Harper is an avowed enemy of universal health care. He has now crafted himself an excuse — we’re broke — to weaken medicare and other safety nets that he makes no secret of hating.
        Throughout his five years in power Harper has used every sneaky device possible to weaken parliamentary democracy, redirecting all levers of power to his office. His ministers are no more than bobbleheads.
        Harper’s cloak of invincibility looks good — until you start looking hard at it. He’s a bully and a really poor administrator.
        His greatest achievement was to leave in place the Liberals’ banking regulations, which he was intent on changing but simply didn’t get around to it.

        • karsten.erzinger

          Those jets are badly needed. The Conservatives have had to up spending like crazy for the military to make up for the disregard and the horrific funding shortage that the military had during the Liberal years. Hell, we showed up in Afghanistan with green-camouflaged uniforms for crying out loud! We had our soldiers begging the US or UK forces for extra uniforms. So yes, we’re buying new fighters, and we damn well need them. Ive happened to talk with a few members of our armed forces and they tell me that pilots literally take their life into their hands every time they take the controls of our current, and ancient, CF-18′s. So what if its not what was originally estimated, point is is that we are in desperate need of them, and good on Harper to make the purchases and to not bow out to posturing by the opposition parties.

    • Rose21

      @PatrickQuint “The change meant that $7m in funding was denied” Of course the change meant that funding was denied. That was Oda’s decision on the matter. The decision was not one for staffers to make — they can only recommend. What a silly complaint. If you want to complain about Karios not getting funding, that is one thing, but the focus on “doctored the document” is bizarre.

      • spud

        “What a silly complaint. If you want to complain about Karios not getting funding, that is one thing, but the focus on “doctored the document” is bizarre.”

        Uh, no, it’s not bizarre, it’s wholly unethical and cowardly. I have no problem with her denying funding – it’s her job. But to lie about the reason and fraudulently deflect responsibility to staffers is somewhere south of piss poor management. If you can’t see this for what it is then you’re ethics are as warped as Oda’s.

  • John Frodo

    Compared to Mulroney maybe, but we still dont know how the $29 billion untendered contract was signed. This goverment is the worst in my lifetime and I first voted in the 70′s. Canada has to be saved from a mad dog.

    • karsten.erzinger

      Im going to pretend youre being sarcastic, because if you voted in the 70′s, that means you were around when Trudeau was in power. He wrecked this country, and his effects continue to this day. Harper is nothing short of perfection given the “progressive” schmucks we’ve had in power over the past 30 years.

  • PW43

    Does it really matter what the Harper government does? It gets its foreign policy from Jerusalem, thus David Frum will support it no matter what it does.

  • Jamie

    “But there is a serial contempt for Parliamentary democracy that far outstrips anything that the recent Martin, Chretien or Mulroney governments displayed.”

    The difference being that those governments were a majority and could basically govern to the exclusion of all other parties. There was no need to strong-arm anyone in order to get legislation passed. In a majority, the PM is basically responsible only to himself. The scandals in the Liberal years, in my opinion, are far worse than any “contempt” (which I also believe is fairly minor) the Conservatives have shown parliament. Not that that dismisses the Conservative Party’s actions… whose optics appear far worse than the actual damage done.


    The Liberals, NDP, (perhaps Bloc… I can’t remember) decried the Conservatives for not spending enough on the stimulus package. Now you hear them screaming (literally in Question Period) that Harper has bankrupted Canada because he overspent (forgetting the additional spending added to the bill in order to get opposition support). Do you honestly believe that the Liberals would have spent less on their own stimulus package if they had been in power? The NDP? I doubt it.

  • PatrickQuint

    ottovbvs “Except you’re ignoring the fact that the regulatory climate etc which largely allowed Canada to avoid the worst of meltdown was a product of Liberal governance. Harper came to power in 2006 and the meltdown in the US started in the third quarter of that year.”

    The latest regulations were passed in ’91, under a very different Liberal party. The Liberals of today, or even the Liberals since 2000, get no credit for it either. The Conservative government has been responsible for the stimulus package and the deficit spending, which is to a certain extent justified in an economic slump (we’re all Keynesian here, I hope). This is as opposed to the monstrous deficits proposed in America.

    UncleLew “His greatest achievement was to leave in place the Liberals’ banking regulations, which he was intent on changing but simply didn’t get around to it.”

    From what I can tell he came into power, put forward a symbolic culture war vote (which failed, as everyone knew it would), and he’s pretty much been sitting on his hands ever since. He’s had plenty of time to put forward any kind of legislation he’d like. The Conservative government just haven’t ever had a mandate, let alone the power to pass it.

    “Ottawa recorded a record US$55.6-billion deficit in the 2009-10 fiscal year. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty expects the shortfall to narrow to US$45.4-billion for the 12-month period ending March 31. He has also promised to eliminate the deficit and post a small surplus of US$2.6-billion in 2015-16.

    However, the Parliamentary Budget Office —the federally appointed watchdog on government spending —believes there will still be a deficit of US$9.7-billion in 2015-16.”

    Imagine the Congressional Budget Office talking about a deficit of 0.5% GDP by 2015!
    These guys predict a Canadian GDP of nearly $2 trillion by 2015.

    • ottovbvs

      “The latest regulations were passed in ‘91, under a very different Liberal party. The Liberals of today, or even the Liberals since 2000, get no credit for it either.”

      They get the credit for not monkeying around with them as conservative govts’ with comfortable majorities would undoubtedly have done. The Liberals have been the dominant power in Canadian politics for the last forty years at least, they’ve largely created ethos of govt that exists up there. Conservative govts that have appeared over that time, notably Mulroney’s, turrned into a disaster. From what I know Harper’s govt hasn’t been particularly disastrous but he’s only been there for four years and since it’s a minority govt he’s been fairly limited in what he could do in the way of imposing conservative policies. In fact it’s not unreasonable to say he’s pursued policies that aren’t very different from those the Liberals would have pursued had they been in power. His govt has got involved in a variety of minor or major scandals depending on your point of view and this makes his re-election less likely. That’s the picture as I see it.

  • John Frodo

    Trudeau created the modern Canada, a country constantly rated in the top ten world wide, with cities constantly in the top ten worldwide. If Canada had not fallen for the false lying Brian, we would have an oil industry like Norway, and it would be Canada with coffers like Saudi Arabia, instead of Exxon. Currently Canada gets more revue from the lottery than from oil royalties, shame on the Conservatives for that.

  • misthiocracy

    I am SO taking those Splenda packets I took back to the cafeteria. The guilt it keeping me up at night.