I read something interesting last week that got me thinking about the many “scandals” that we read about on a daily basis. The chief of the Quebec Treasury Board, Stéphane Bédard, was quoted as saying, “Fighting corruption … in monetary terms is quite profitable … The effects are tangible for the pocketbooks of Quebeckers.”
My mind went back to the place I come from, where corruption is a way of life, a given in every transaction and so much a part of the way things are done, that it barely registers. In my own way, I have developed a sort of Richter scale to measure “scandals” involving corruption that come at me constantly. Early during my time in Canada, I ran into the sponsorship scandal – what was described then and even now as the motherlode of corruption at the highest levels of government – involving about $100 million in advertising and events designed to promote Canadian unity in Quebec in the run up to the 1995 referendum.
I had trouble understanding what the ruckus was about. The prime minister of the day, Jean Chrétien, is credited with holding the country together and working hard on the ‘unity’ file. He directed his government to spare no expense in ensuring that Quebeckers voted against breaking up the country. When his side won by the slimmest of margins, the ‘Yes’ side credited their defeat to the money that was spent by the federal government and immigrants in Quebec voting against sovereignty.
Gomery gong show
To my mind, that was money well spent – even if all the accounting and paperwork did not add up. But, if insiders profited from the government’s enthusiasm, they should be held to account, forced to pay it back and prosecuted. Instead, what we got was a giant circus (read gong show) called the Gomery Commission that vied with the OJ Simpson trial a few years earlier for television ratings. And, what was the outcome: the Justice John Gomery inquiry spent $32 million, leading to a few convictions and some of the $100 million that was misspent returned to government coffers. In hindsight, one can legitimately ask, what was the point? Did we end up wasting good money after bad money?
Quebec’s current Pauline Marois government appears to have got one thing right: corruption inquiries like the Charbonneau Commission must be cost-effective and result in actual savings, and not be boondoggles in and of themselves. The provincial finance minister is expected to come up with actual dollar figures shortly, but the government thinks it has saved nearly a billion dollars by being more vigilant against price-fixing, middlemen and contract bidders behaving like a cartel. In Canada, unfortunately, corruption inquiries end up being more political witch hunts, rather than focused on finding cost-effective ways to save taxpayer dollars.
The latest “scandal” involves three Conservative-appointed Senators who clearly bent the rules to profit from their housing allowances. Like somebody asked early on in this saga last December, why is it so difficult for Senators to answer the question, Where is your primary residence? (Sadly, a fourth, Liberal Senator Mac Harb, is an immigrant.) That two of them are celebrated journalists – Mike Duffy of P.E.I. and Pamela Wallin of Saskatchewan – makes this feeding frenzy even more depressing. Reading about the “Senate scandal” in newspapers, watching the unfolding tidbits dribbling out from clever leaks on TV and listening to non-stop coverage on radio, makes an immigrant like me wonder, is this really worthy of all this attention?
On my own Richter scale of corruption, it wouldn’t even register a One. That’s not because I think the Senators should be allowed to make the rules as they go along and profit from their office, but rather that the law should be allowed to take its own course. There is an internal Senate inquiry, the RCMP is investigating, there are external auditors and I hear that even the auditor-general will weigh in. Of course, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, are toast – and they should be – because they have lost the trust of the man who appointed them, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. They must repay every dollar they have dinged from taxpayers and face the legal consequences of abusing a privilege.
Creep of corruption
Of course, there is always the possibility – and the hint – that the tentacles of this “scandal” reach far wider than just these three Senators. Surely, we in the media would like to unearth something on the scale of the Great Railway scam in the early years after Confederation – reported so eloquently in Pierre Berton’s The National Dream: The Great Railway, 1871-1881 (McClelland and Stewart, c1970). Yes, in my book that one would rate a Five on the Richter scale. The Mulroney-Schreiber Airbus affair was in the same league.
In this instance, however, we have a chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, Nigel Wright – a man of integrity by all accounts – booted out, while the three Senators continue to dissemble in the court of public opinion. Mr. Wright’s “deception” was trying to protect his boss the prime minister and dipping into his own substantial wealth to bail out a Senator who was a crowd-pulling shill for the Conservative Party. While I understand that the Senator should never have put himself in that sort of compromising position, I have yet to figure out why Mr. Wright had to take the fall.
In all the years that I have been a Canadian citizen, I have yet to wake up and read a morning newspaper without some “scandal” roiling national discourse: This, in a country that is rated by Transparency International as one of the cleanest in the world. Half of humanity would gladly trade places with us Canadians to get here and become citizens. Those of who come from truly corrupt societies know the stench and creep of corruption; and we should surely do everything to guard against mendacity in public life.
But, let’s have a sense of proportion and not have these so-called scandals derail more important debate. Let’s face it: we are never going to get away from some of our politicians and officials being “small time, cheap.” – New Canadian Media