|Montreal, November 8, 2003 / No 132|
by Ralph Maddocks
The background noise level is decreasing now that parliament is in recess and next week's coronation of the new leader of the Liberal Party seems virtually assured. Mr. Chrétien is no longer expected to terrorise his coprophagic caucus, our MPs have all had their Christmas photographs taken under the House of Commons tree and even the voice of Ms Copps is stilled, temporarily at least. Those who watched the final display of insincerity in the House of Commons on Thursday afternoon could be forgiven for thinking that the Ottawa area must have experienced a distinct shortage of anti-emetics this week. Recently, the somnolence of Parliament has been disturbed only by a plethora of cabinet ministers admitting to having accepted free lodging and entertainment from a prominent Canadian company.
These admissions of guilt, coming as they do so near to the coronation,
can only have been induced by the realisation that they needed to ingratiate
themselves with their future leader if their own political careers were
to continue unhindered. Doubtless each minister's sphincter shrivelling
experience in confessing before the House was not unrelated to having to
avoid giving offence to King Jean de Shawinigan who dismissed their transgressions
as unimportant anyway. Even the PM's personal director of conscience saw
no wrong and pronounced his absolution. Yet again the curtain had been
raised on a moral climate where elected politicians hold as a tenet of
their faith that they can do as they please and ignore their clear responsibility
to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest.
The Auditor General who is supposed to introduce her report on the spending, or mis-spending, of our money at the latter end of November has said already that some programmes are so poorly documented that audits could not even be completed. The records were either unavailable, incomplete or unreliable. This lack of proper information management has the result of making it difficult if not impossible to assign responsibility, no doubt a state of affairs which gladdens the heart of the more venal. Frequently in the past, the Information and Privacy Commissioners, Parliamentary Committees and others have called attention to poor information management and its impact. Poor record keeping has been quoted as a key factor of concern in the management of the gun registry programme, of concerns over GST fraud, in the improper tendering of government contracts, in the inability to locate expensive commissioned reports and in the lack of security for sensitive information placed on government Websites.
The Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates which looks into the probity of government spending has already ejected one civil servant from his post, on the grounds of his gastronomic profligacy, and has threatened to look into the spending habits of a former ministerial aide. They have been muttering too about probing a recent junket by our Head of State. After all, its alleged cost of a million dollars is a lot of money. It is the stuff of lotteries, and the spending – or wasting – of such stupendous amounts invariably provokes the wrath of the elected guardians of the public purse. Particularly when wasted by those less able to defend themselves, though not, it seems, when the odd billion or so is wasted on some dubious scheme championed by a cabinet minister.
It will be recalled that the Governor General – our Head of State – went off with some sixty odd hangers on – at the taxpayers' expense of course – to visit northern places including the Russian kleptocracy and the democracies of Finland and Iceland. Naturally the members of the group were not described in quite those terms but as "other ‘prominent Canadians'" and although their particular prominence was not detailed it included former and present politicians, actors, journalists and writers some of whom were accompanied by their spouses to whom they are attached with or without the benefit of clergy.
Today, four years into the reign of the present Head of State, expenditures for that office have reached $35 million – comprising a basic budget of $20 million, plus another $15 million spent on Head of State related activities by other departments and agencies. While the $7 millions used to fund renovations to the official residence at Rideau Hall may be possible to justify, just four years ago our Head of State was costing the taxpayers only $10-million. The root of the problem seems to be that parliament did not authorise any of this additional spending. Disdainful responses, by both the Head of State and her spokeswoman, to questions about the much publicised trip, seem only to have made matters worse. The committee finally lost its patience and passed a resolution demanding that the Head of State make a full accounting of all federal spending made on her behalf.
Unless there is a change next week, Canada will have, after the crowning of the new Liberal leader, a person who is no longer the leader of the majority party sitting in the House of Commons as Prime Minister, with the real newly elected leader of that same majority party essentially a backbencher. Certainly, the new Liberal Party leader will not be obliged to answer questions in Parliament, which is why the Bloc Québécois introduced what was in effect a vote of confidence motion. Although as far as votes of confidence go it is hard to understand what could be more compelling than party representatives voting to replace their own leader. Seeking to clarify the situation the BQ motion called for the present PM to step down "as soon as possible" after November 14 when the new leader becomes apparent. As usual the motion was defeated 169-97 when Liberal members, including the heir apparent, voted to retain Mr. Chrétien until apparently he reaches his self declared "Best Before date."
One might think that next week, when the new leader of the reigning Liberal party is named, the present incumbent would rise gracefully to the occasion and make a speech before his formerly adoring party to the effect that he was resigning immediately in favour of the new leader, wish his successor well and depart for golf courses old or new. This would be the normal course of events, but the present tenant of Sussex Drive thus far gives no indication of choosing this course. His ego seems to be impelling him to continually frustrate his successor as he insists that he will stay until he is good and ready to leave, which tantalisingly he suggests might be before his previously expressed departure date of February 2004. Somehow the concept of grace in defeat and this particular political leader do not seem apposite.
Readers may recall the infamous Red Book which in 1993 promised to "review the appointment process to ensure that necessary appointments are made on the basis of competence" and to "establish strict guidelines for merit in government appointments." Now, ten years later, presumably the review has been completed and by the time you read this Mr. C's patronage appointments will likely have exceeded the century mark. Certainly, some sixty per cent of the Senate already owe their highly paid sinecures to him.
What we see happening is a direct result of what has become a feature of the parliamentary system of government. All over the world, prime ministers are no longer primus inter pares but have become extremely powerful – more powerful than even the ancient kings they replaced – and can do exactly as they please, even to the extent of not allowing a replacement to take over until the incumbent decides to permit it. A cynic may suspect that faced with this reality the new leader is unwilling to make an issue of this example of the "democratic deficit" because to do so may prevent him from behaving similarly when the time comes for him to make his own exit.
There was even some talk of an earlier than stated departure date provided Mr. Chrétien's so-called "legacy" legislation is passed, a blatant form of bribery in fact. As this was being written this legislation appeared quite unlikely to become law. The marijuana bill for one seems not to be on the cards and one might wonder whether it was ever intended as anything other than the proffering of an upraised finger to the Americans. Waiting until February will mean that the prime ministerial transition team will find it difficult to plan a budget, deliver a new Throne Speech and hold an election in the spring as the new leader seems to wish. So perhaps Mr. Chrétien will depart sooner rather than later, but he is said to be a stubborn man.
I wondered though how much the average voter cares about any of this. They know that none of the opposition parties will be elected to govern this country at the next federal election and perhaps the growing rate of abstention from voting reflects this belief. Most people believe that all politicians, regardless of party affiliation, relate terminological inexactitudes on a serial basis. They believe most politicians to be largely incompetent and incapable of earning a living in some other way. The corollary being that parliamentary debate (to employ that term very loosely) is largely irrelevant because it is being conducted by various groups of deceitful inadequates.
How often does one hear the refrain "They are all alike," repeated again and again like an endless tape recording? It is an observation which I suspect may be truer than many think. How much real difference is there between our various politicians? The philosophical differences between the so-called right and left have disappeared almost completely over the years as each party tries to occupy the middle ground where the greater part of the electorate tend to dwell. The competition for electoral support consists of finding better ways to suborn the country's various interest groups. Whether those groups are the "poor and disadvantaged" or, to employ that felicitous term, "corporate welfare bums."
There are many examples of this kind of behaviour in parliamentary systems around the world and promising one thing and delivering another is common. In today's Britain, NuLabour under its very own dictator, Tony Blair, is doing things for which Margaret Thatcher would have been excoriated. Tony Blair simply welded Thatcherite economics to Labour egalitarianism and the conservative opposition found its own ground occupied by NuLabour. This is why the Conservative Party in Britain will not be elected at the next UK election and the real victor there is likely to be the Abstention Party.
Increasingly we see the public turning away from politics because all parties tend to offer to reach impossible goals. Provincially we hear promises of change. Quebec's Liberals, having secured substantial electoral support from the various de-merger groups in the Montreal suburbs, are now starting to allude to the difficulties such demerger groups might face. The promised referendums seem to be moving farther and farther away into the future. No doubt giving the One City adherents a better chance to organise the defeat of their opponents. During the Ontario election campaign the Liberals there stated that they would keep the electricity cap in place until 2006. They said that "Ratepayers shouldn't have to pay for the mistakes of any government." Yet, just four weeks after being elected they announced that Ontario's taxpayers would now be expected to pay the full cost of their electricity. As the new Liberal Premier, Dalton McGuinty, said to the Economic Club of Toronto, after his election, "I want a price regime that better reflects the true cost of electricity."
Politicians, promise what they can't possibly deliver, then once in office find that they have to conceal their fraud. This is why they tell untruths and indulge in such activities as spin, evasion and the manipulation of statistics. The public then turn their backs in disgust and are said to be "no longer interested in politics." I wonder if this is true though, it seems to me that it is perhaps politics which is no longer interested in them. It is certainly in the interests of all politicians to have less and less opposition. Most politicians avoid all talk of the hard choices that will have to be made, they just impose their solution when they feel they have no other option. Usually this is done early in their mandate, well before the next election when they could be punished for what they did.
When Mr. Martin becomes our PM, among other problems he will have to wrestle with will be whether to go ahead with a proposed plan to give each federal MP $100,000 to hand out to constituency groups, women's shelters, environmental initiatives, amateur hockey clubs and the like. A measure supported by all parties except, to their credit, by the Canadian Alliance. If adopted nationally it is doubtful if such a measure will be a step forward in the direction of improved democracy. It will simply increase the rewards available to the smaller local pressure groups. After his leadership ratification, Mr. Martin spoke to reporters and said: "This was a vote for different ways of doing things. It's very important to understand just what a fundamental shift in the way the government is going to operate is really going to occur over the course of the months." He has extolled the benefits of globalization and the importance of using capital properly and has laid out a vision where high-tech winners in an information economy are rewarded. He said also, without specifying exactly who, that he would end government support to losers. He was quoted as saying, "[Prudent fiscal management] means focussing on results, on outcomes, on improving programmes that work and bringing those that don't work to a deserving end. The fact is Canadians have come too far, worked too hard and sacrificed too much to go back to the era of deficits." A sentiment with which most might agree.
One would like to believe what Mr. Martin is saying and it would be boorish and ill mannered to suggest that he is not telling the truth. Sadly, my natural and increasing scepticism prompts me to ask questions like "How will he do these things when the party he leads still contains nearly all the people associated with, if not involved in, the various failed and/or blighted schemes of the past?" It should not be forgotten either that Mr. Martin himself was a fully fledged member of the ancien regime when many of these schemes were in progress or at least, to be as charitable as possible, being planned. We are not hearing anything at all about any new previously unelected and incorruptible geniuses offering their candidacies for the next election. This and political apathy probably means that the governing elite considers that the unreflecting electorate believes that all is well and that life may continue exactly as before. Maybe my cynicism is too well entrenched for me to believe that real change will occur, but Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man (Epistle i, 1.95) written in 1733, did offer us this insight, Hope springs eternal in the human breast.
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