Are Canadian politicians more corrupt than ever before? The general public seems to think so. Opinion polls show that people’s confidence in government has plummeted. Fed a steady diet of headlines about the sponsorship scandal, the HRDC boondoggle and the $1-billion gun registry fiasco, many Canadians now associate the word “politician” with ignoble motives.
Yet much of what passes as corruption in this country is actually waste or mismanagement rather than thievery or skulduggery. We ought not to excuse waste or mismanagement, but lesser misdemeanours should not be confused with more heinous felonies.
The Canadian government is, arguably, more transparent and sanitary today than it has ever been. We now have ethics commissioners, conflict-of-interest guidelines, access-to-information laws, as well as intrusive auditors and aggressively suspicious media. Canadians – reminded daily on our currency that Macdonald, Laurier and Mackenzie King were our nation-builders – forget or have not learned that corruption and patronage as practised by these leaders were part of the creation of the modern Canadian state. The sponsorship scandal, to use one recent example, pales in comparison to the Pacific Scandal that led to Macdonald’s dismissal from office. Consider, too, that compared to most countries, Canada is remarkably clean: Transparency International, an organization devoted to fighting corruption, ranks this country 12th and the U.S. 17th in a survey of 146 nations on integrity.
Intense competition among media contributes to our malaise with politics. Sleaze, scandal and sensationalism sell papers and attract viewers. The media make front-page news out of proposed salary increases for politicians but fail to point out that most are paid less than many middle-tier corporate employees, and earn a fraction of what movie stars and sports celebrities do. Media also do not report that many politicians take substantial pay cuts in order to serve the public and subject their private lives to intense scrutiny, the kind that most Canadians would find intolerable.
Our expectations of politicians have risen but human nature has not changed. We expect government to operate like an infallible machine but neglect to appreciate that government is run by people who get their work done by “networking” and building “strategic alliances,” just as they do in a corporate setting. And these people, just like their corporate counterparts, are no less flawed. But nor are they any less capable of noble, selfless service for the common good.
Advances in the physical sciences have prompted us to promulgate unrealistic, utopian ideals about humanity and its very human governments. More than ever, politicians have become convenient scapegoats for whatever we are unhappy about. And our discontent is heightened by journalists and pundits who pose as neutral, presumably flawless, observers.
Of course, we need to be vigilant about corruption and malfeasance in order to expose and rectify them. Let us acknowledge, however, that politicians such as Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles struggled to bring us medicare and improve pensions. Former premier Bob Rae is labouring valiantly in the interests of Ontario’s system of higher education. We should extend kudos as easily and as quickly as we offer criticism and complaint. More humility and less sanctimonious outrage are necessary from us all: citizens, politicians and the media.
Nelson Wiseman is a professor in the department of political science.