Giving the Tories a free pass on sleaze and low ethics

Posted on October 6, 2008 in Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinion/Commentary –
October 6, 2008, LAWRENCE MARTIN

Are we about to clean up our deteriorating political culture?

Not a chance. In fact, given the developments in this election, the descent of our politics into the ethical dungeon is likely to accelerate.

While there was some talk of “trust” in the leaders’ debates, there has been no focus on the need for democratic reform. And while some individual Conservatives have been caught up in embarrassing ethical errors in the campaign, the governing party, by and large, is emerging unscathed in respect to almost every sleazy operation it’s been accused of during its term in power. Meantime, Stephen Harper’s autocratic image has been softened by Conservative television spots and his debate performance, where the Prime Minister showed admirable self-control.

The Liberals have let a big opportunity pass. As Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch points out, they haven’t even bothered to include a democratic reform package in their platform. They know Canadians are turned off by what they see in Ottawa, but despite having a leader in Stéphane Dion who gets points for integrity and honesty, they have backed away from any plan.

Mr. Dion has been undercut by cheap Conservative attack ads ever since he was elected Liberal Leader. One way to bring a measure of civility to the process would have been through reforms that, for example, allowed parties to speak only of their own policies and personalities in TV ads.

Of course, the Liberals may well be taking a cautious line on reform out of fear that raising the issue would bring back memories of sponsorship-scandal days. With the NDP also relatively quiet on this front, the end result for the Conservatives will likely be a confirmation that gutter politics works – and hey, let’s bring on more of same when we’re re-elected.

That said, some hallmarks of their first term should not be forgotten: the mudslinging, the secrecy, the bullying and intimidation, the massive centralization of power.

The Tories took attack ads to a record frequency, running them year round. While promising an era of cleanliness, they were accused of surreptitiously engaging in money transfers – the “in-and-out” affair – that led to an RCMP raid on their headquarters. They produced a secret 200-page manual on how to disrupt the parliamentary process, then went about doing so, shutting down committees or blocking potentially damaging witnesses.

They mocked their own accountability legislation by turning access-to-information regulations on the Afghan detainees file and many others into barricades-to-information. Information Commissioner Robert Marleau reported that Mr. Harper’s own Privy Council Office was a leader in access-denial. He graded it an “F.”

The Prime Minister’s Office attempted to vet the communications of Auditor-General Sheila Fraser and no less than seven other independent officers of Parliament. The government silenced bureaucrats and foreign diplomats to degrees unseen. Its own cabinet members were often gagged in the Commons, queries to them being turned over to the party House leader, who was a specialist in ridicule. In Ottawa, normal journalistic avenues were cut off until recently. A huge government information registry was terminated.

The smearing of opponents was taken to new heights. The opposition was branded by the Prime Minister as anti-Israel and pro-Taliban and out to “screw” Canadians. MP Navdeep Bains was the victim of gross innuendo. Troubling ethical questions were raised by Dona Cadman on the alleged bribery of her husband; by the sole-sourcing of defence contracts, by NAFTAgate, by the Bernier affair. A long list of government pledges were openly defied, including on patronage and, most recently, on fixed-election dates.

The Harper government hasn’t been involved in controversies of the type that have plagued Brian Mulroney. It doesn’t do scandals like Sponsorship or Shawinigate that, much to the displeasure of Jean Chrétien and the delight of conservatives, I wrote about endlessly.

This government’s uniqueness, rather, is in the breadth and degree to which it has ethically debased the system in such a short time. The Mulroney and Chrétien governments were in power nine and 10 years respectively. These guys, many of whom like Mr. Harper came here as champions of democratic reform, have only been at it for two and a half.

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