There's nothing to celebrate in political scandals

Thursday, October 20, 2005

  • MPP Greg Sorbara

    MPP Greg Sorbara

With all of the misfortune currently befalling many of the people that I count as political enemies, you might think that I'd be having a rollicking round of schadenfreude right now.

I'll admit that I was sorely tempted to smile when I first learned of last week's resignation of Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara - twenty-one months after he first learned that a company on whose Board he had served was under investigation by both the Ontario Securities Commission and the RCMP and one day after a search warrant was executed against his family's business. I had argued last spring that he should have resigned then, particularly given the high ethical standards that he demanded of Conservative and NDP ministers while in opposition. But, still, I'm not happy about Greg Sorbara's resignation.

I had to quell a similarly unfortunate compulsion when I heard that David Dingwall was in trouble for his spending habits as head of the Royal Canadian Mint and his lobbying practices when he was temporarily between patronage appointments. Dingwall, a former Public Works Minister, may also have some unflattering things said about him when Justice Gomery reports on the Liberals' sponsorship scandal. Despite the fact that I've never admired the way that Dingwall conducts politics and was thrilled when he lost his seat in 1997, I'm not pleased about his latest fall from grace.

Likewise, in the United States, the wheels are coming off the Bush administration, a band of thugs whose policies I abhor. Key Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff has been indicted on fraud charges. Key Bush aide David Safavian was subsequently charged with making repeated false statements to cover up the cozy relationship between the White House and Abramoff. House Majority leader Tom Delay has stepped down after being charged with campaign finance violations and money laundering. Senate leader Bill Frist is under investigation for insider trading. Meanwhile, the top advisors to both Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney are being questioned about whether they leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame to get revenge against her husband for undermining their lies regarding Iraq. While the fact that Bush and the Republicans are becoming increasingly unpopular (not solely for reasons of corruption) makes me happy, I take no joy in finding out the exact details of their underhandedness.

The average voter doesn't hear about these scandals and conclude that the Martin Liberals, the McGuinty Liberals or the Bush Republicans are ethically challenged. They hear about them and, as Toronto Star columnist Ian Urquhart noted last week, "egged on by the corrosive chorus of talk radio… [they come to] see all politicians as scumbags." This only drives people away from participating in the political process. Instead of being motivated to work for the election of politicians who share their values, most voters tend to think that they'll catch something if they get involved in a campaign or join a political party. An increasing number of people don't even bother to vote.

Those who take the latest scandal as part of their motivation for getting out to vote are often prone to making kneejerk reactions when marking their X. If the Liberals are corrupt, why not vote Conservative in order to teach them a lesson? Indeed, when Stephen Harper thought he had a chance of becoming Prime Minister this past spring, Liberal corruption was basically all that he talked about. He didn't talk about what he would actually do in office, either in terms of policy or in terms of ensuring that Liberal corruption wasn't merely replaced by Conservative corruption (something for which there is a fair amount of historical precedent).

As well, what follows a scandal-induced resignation isn't necessarily an improvement. I highly doubt that Dwight Duncan is going to be a better Finance Minister than Greg Sorbara, and we already know that he is just as obnoxiously partisan. Tom DeLay followed Newt Gingrich as House Majority leader after Gingrich had his own ethical meltdown, while Frist took over from Trent Lott after Lott got in trouble for waxing nostalgic about segregation. Similarly, the next DeLay and Frist aren't likely to advance more progressive policies than their predecessors, and they aren't going to fight any cleaner.

For progressives like me, who want to convince voters that governments can make a positive difference in their lives, a widespread loss of confidence in politicians and government can only undermine our argument. On the other hand, for those on the right, I suppose that a loss of confidence in government would be considered a very good thing. In the charming imagery of Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform and one of the Republicans' leading strategists, the goal of right wingers "is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

This might sound like a fantasy, but wouldn't it be great if elections were decided based primarily upon ideas, instead of which candidate is the bigger crook? Much as I want to see the defeat of the Liberals in Ontario and nationally, and the Republicans south of the border, I'd rather see that happen because voters got smart - not just because they are angry about ethics scandals. Scandals aren't just bad for the parties in power. They're bad for everyone.

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