My husband and two of my children are out watching the sky to see Venus, Mercury and Jupiter aligned and visible. I’m staying home with the sleeping two year old, so I finally have a bit of time to write.
This week’s political news seems full of scandal. We’ve got the question of Rob Ford doing cocaine. We’ve got the question of why Nigel Wright, chief of staff at the PMO office paid $90,000 for Senator Mike Duffy so that Duffy’s expenses weren’t audited. We’ve got two NDP MPs not having paid their taxes, and we have a court that admits that the Conservative Party did electoral fraud but refusing to take any action on it. Is it any wonder people have trouble trusting politicians? I’ve heard some comments about how Rob Ford is the teflon man and nothing sticks to him so what does the accusations him matter? Then one of the things that caught my attention on Facebook was a picture-post that said while everyone was distracted with Ford and Duffy Harper is in Peru selling Canada’s freedoms and protections away with the TPP. So I want to just pause for a moment and think about the issue of whether personal scandals matter or not.
I’m very concerned that Toronto’s mayor and one of the councilors have drug dealer connections, because I don’t want the needs of drug dealers to be relevant to their decision making. I don’t want them to be blackmail-able, and I don’t want them to be high. Yet on the other hand, aren’t all politicians open to corruption and pressure, whether it is of organized crime or just their big donors? No, it has to be worse for a politician to be in debt to someone who could potentially shoot you than to someone who just won’t donate to your next election campaign.
Scandals do matter. Right and wrong matter. We want politicians who know the different. We want politicians who pay their taxes willingly out of an acknowledgement that taxes do good things. We want politicians who believe is it their job to try to be servants of the greater good.
Scandals do matter. They feed into the right-wing ideology. They feed into the idea that government is bad, and that shrinking the government is good. They feed into the idea that taxes are bad by encouraging us to think that its our money they are wasting, and then we become more vulnerable to have our votes bought with the promise of tax cuts than if we pictured our tax money as going towards public services. Moreover they encourage us to think that cooperate is impossible, everyone’s really out for their own and if anyone says they’re doing something for the public good they’re lying.
Yet scandals also do become a distraction as the public move from one to another. Scandals matter because we don’t have an effective way of dealing with them. We cannot force Duffy to resign the senate. We can demand investigations and we can protest and hope that one party’s scandals will result in our party be elected. If the scandal isn’t big enough and a person or party gets re-elected, like when the Conservatives were found in contempt of Parliament and then immediately re-elected, it ends up sending all the wrong messages. If scandals do alter elections then we risk ignoring political policies. Ultimately the problem with Rob Ford is not his drug habit but his bad municipal policy.
We need ways of reigning in power. I’m still thinking about the idea of having the party leader be elected by the sitting MPs, instead of by the party at large. That would allow the MPs to force the leader to listen to them a bit more. But what then could you do to reign in the MPs? It would be dangerous then to have the party leader have the power to oust individual MPs, but what about having the recall power so the people could trigger a by-election by having enough signatures on a petition? Or what about more frequent elections but with incredibly low spending limits, so that less money is spent advertising?
People like to see trainwrecks. We like to watch as politicians or celebrities or anyone starts to crash. There’s a reason why the Kitchen Nightmare episode about Amy’s Baking Company became so popular online, and I think part of it is that people like watching others fail and knowing that it is the person’s own fault. My personal theory is that people are grasping for some sense of order and security, and watching others fail because of their own mistakes – whether writing a $90,000 cheque or yelling at serving staff on television – gives people a small and probably illusion-based sense of security. Or maybe there’s also an extent to which we like to see our political views vindicated by the concrete examples of the moral failings of those who hold opposite views. Maybe its a hope that the ethical failings of political opponents will finally give our guys a chance to win.
But I still think we need to concentrate more on political policies. We need politicians that are not just slightly less corrupt than the next guy, but that embrace noble ideas. We need ideas that inspire us.
I have been inspired participating in the struggle locally to have funding restored to help those on social assistance in moving expenses and the purchase of new furniture. It is a small but concrete issue and it fits into the bigger questions of whether we are going to take adequate care of the poor or not. A group from the local anti-poverty coalition went again to city hall and spoke with the workers from Ontario Works as well as one of the administrators. The administrator tells us there will be a public imput session for local organizations to give feedback in how the limited funds should be administered and she won’t listen to us until then. We’re frusturated that they are using this public imput event as a stall tactic to ignore the issue of what happens to individuals who need help now, and we have little hope for the event because conversation there is likely to assume that we just have to work with the limited funds, rather than challenge the limits. We need more money for those on social assistance, the question shouldn’t be how do we divy up the peanuts available but how do we get what we need? I’m worried that some of the organizations asked to give public imput aren’t necessarily going to feel comfortable saying “we need more money” because that’s a political issue that could get them in trouble for advocacy, whereas just saying “give the money to the most deprived / most worthy / women and children first and define beds, couches and tables as luxury items” would seem safer. Maybe not. Maybe I’m underestimating the other organizations that deal with poverty locally. I don’t know, but getting involved with the local issue also reaffirms why politics matter. There are lives at stake with the budget decisions.
Bringing this back to the idea of political scandals, I think we need to acknowledge political scandals and develop better, quicker ways of dealing with them, but not to feed on the soap opera details of them. We need healthier, meatier political issues to deal with too.
Then there’s the robocall election fraud, which is scandalous but not a scandal in the same way that Rob Ford getting videoed is. This is a crime and the judge acknowledged that but then declined to overturn the results. To quote the cbc article:
The judge said in the ruling that he had to keep in mind that annulling the election would disenfranchise every voter who cast a ballot and that a byelection isn’t a perfect solution. He said that lightly overturning a result would increase the likelihood of post-election legal fights in the future. Overturning an election result must be reserved for serious cases, he wrote.
I’m stuck for a moment on the idea of disenfranchisement. In a first-past-the-post electoral system like we have, only the votes for the winner count and it doesn’t matter if they make up less than 50% of the voters. So if an NDP or Liberal candidate lost because of fraudulent phone calls then all their supporters have already had their votes dismissed. Only the Conservative winner’s supporters votes were relevant, and only because of the fraudulent phone calls. So why shouldn’t they be disenfranchised?
Then there’s the question of how serious fraud must be. I know the Council of Canadians is trying to spin this as a win because at least the court acknowledged that there is election fraud, but really, isn’t the takeaway message that a little election fraud is okay, because election results only get overthrown if there’s lots? How much fraud has to happen for it to be considered serious enough?