Canadian Politics from Canada's Centre

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Talk about the wrong message

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(Cross-posted at BlueGrit)

What do Allan Cutler, Conservative candidate in Ottawa South and the sponsorship whistleblower, and Prime Minister Paul Martin have in common?

Both of them were honest enough to put their jobs on the line to expose government corruption. Cutler was fired - Martin may well be.

The sponsorship scandal is often touted as the "biggest scandal in Canadian history." The validity of this statement is suspect, as some would point out the legendary corruption of Sir John A. Macdonald's government. However, the point is taken. Perhaps the biggest scandal of all is the effect that the sponsorship scandal could have on Canadian politics. The Gomery Inquiry could indeed serve as a warning to future governments, but not in the way it ought to.

Let's trace the events, as we know them:
- Auditor General Sheila Fraser exposes the sponsorship program and the unaccounted money.
- Paul Martin cancels the sponsorship program.
- Paul Martin calls the Gomery Inquiry.
- Judge Gomery releases his fact-finding report.
- Despite being exonnerated by Judge Gomery, Paul Martin still takes the blame from the public.

This is very troubling. Essentially, the message is this: If you are honest, you will pay for it; if you tell the truth, you will be punished.

Scandals happen. This is the reality of government. Any time people are put in charge of hundreds of billions of dollars, some of it is going to go missing. Stephen Harper was quoted as saying, "When there is a scandal," which is telling. Of course there would be scandal under a Harper government - the question is, would it be covered up?

I am not optimistic. The Gomery Inquiry is not without precedent in Canadian history. It is comparable in many ways to the inquiry into the CPR Scandal, both of which saw sitting prime ministers testify, and both of which (it seems now) toppled said prime minister. But the unprecedented thing is that Paul Martin so willingly and so readily established the public inqury. He put his career on the line to get to the bottom of the scandal, and he is paying the price for being honest - that price could be his job.

So let's ask the question - when scandal next happens, as it will, will the sitting prime minister be stupid enough to be as honest about it as Martin has been? After all the message we're sending is that if you call a public inquiry and expose the scandal for all to see, even if you are personally exonnerated you will still pay an electoral price. On the other hand, if you do what Jean Chretien surely would have done, and did through his tenure as prime minister, and sweep it under the rug, denying everything and covering it all up, then nothing bad will happen to you.

This has happened before. Jean Chretien took the lesson of Brian Mulroney seriously. Mulroney was a more or less honest prime minister, and his government faced scandal, as most do. But Mulroney did not tolerate scandal, and he fired ministers over it. And he paid the price, and is remembered as corrupt. Chretien would not let the same thing happen to him, and he was almost completely unaccountable, since no one knew what was happening in his government. Martin, like Mulroney, would not stand for the scandal, and he now ends up with the same reputation as Mulroney.

If the message that Canadians send is that honesty is punishable by termination, how can we realistically expect our politicians to be honest?

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