In recent weeks, a number of scandals have beset Stephen Harper’s minority government. Rumors and reports of misdemeanors and misdeeds – and the election speculations which they spur – are an irresistible combination for the Canadian political press, and journalists have eagerly documented each new discovery in painstaking detail. But, as the media runs in the direction of the latest and loudest sirens, it is important not to neglect the larger questions which these public scandals ought to raise.
While political scandals often involve influence, emoluments, or the appearance of impropriety, the essence of each scandal remains the same: the revelation of a failure by those in power to recognize and exercise their personal responsibility. The reason why the question, “What did you know and when did you know it?” is asked so often in the wake of such revelations is because the burden of responsibility falls on those who could have exercised their personal power but failed to do so. Those who knew and did not act rightly receive the harshest blame, and excuses by subordinates who claim they just “followed orders” add a pitiable misunderstanding of their position to their distressing dereliction of duty.
This, however, is exactly the defense of politicians who vote on moral issues according to the wishes of their constituents or (worse) take direction from the party leaders. Employing the very logic of an embattled underling, these pliant politicians claim they are “personally opposed” to the very immoral measures which they support. But while everyone recognizes this superficial excuse as a confession of complicity in other contexts, when politicians proffer this reasoning as an explanation of their stance of moral issues, many Canadians are inclined to see this as the mark of mature and difficult deliberation.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Any politician that would admit to voting against his own conscience on a decisive moral issue has failed against the only measure that matters: his own. And it is unclear why a politician who would violate his deepest conviction on moral matters should be trusted with something as trivial as running a federal ministry or holding the government to account. Such politicians have already admitted that the wishes of their party or their own popularity matter more than their most heartfelt beliefs: how can the public good be protected by people who admit to violating their own private convictions when the situation demands it?
When Reform-turned-Liberal MP, Keith Martin, announced his retirement from politics last year, he cited the “dysfunctional” nature of Parliament as one of the reasons for his departure. While he is certainly correct in this estimation, Martin, a physician, only identified a symptom and did not diagnose the underling ailment of the Lower Chamber: the dysfunction of Parliament is a result of parliamentarians’ lack of conviction. Furthermore, its partisanship – which Martin also lamented – is of a piece with this lack of moral rectitude: when one’s conscience is no longer the ultimate authority, the wishes of one’s party become paramount.
To dispel the corrosive climate created by moral compromise, clear leadership is needed.
Politicians beholden to party whips and opinion polls have no place in the halls of power, and Canadians must demand more of their public servants than a slavish obedience to the changing winds of the time. Indeed, if the recent spate of scandals holds any lesson for politicians it is this: that what is done in darkness will eventually come to light, be it a history of recognizable misconduct or a record of moral compromise.
It is said that a nation gets the leaders which it deserves, and the Canadian politicians of recent memory do no redound to our nation’s credit. To remedy our unhappy lot, we need only hold our politicians to the same standard to which we hold ourselves: that is, our private moral judgements based on a well-formed conscience. How can we expect our leaders to be great when we do not expect them, first of all, to be good? Whether or not an election looms in the near future, Parliament remains sorely in need of new leaders who have the courage of their personal convictions, and who reject the fool’s counsel of compromise. Canada deserves no less.