POLITICS

The moral high ground

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 2 1995
POLITICS

The moral high ground

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 2 1995

The moral high ground

POLITICS

Do as we say, voters seem to be telling their elected officials—not as we do

Bright, brash and a selfdescribed “battler for what I believe in,” Reform MP Deborah Grey is accustomed to facing—and overcoming—big challenges. The 42-year-old former teacher first ran as a candidate for Reform in 1988 because, she says, “I believed I could achieve things for the country in politics—if we could change the way politics is done in the country.” She lost, but four months later Grey won a byelection in the Alberta riding of Beaver River. That made her, for the next four years, the party’s only representative in the House of Commons. When she was reelected in 1993, joined by 51 other Reform MPs, “I thought we could really start to change things,” she recalls. But first, Grey had to change the way some of her own followers thought. One byproduct of Reform’s success came in the form of entreaties from friends and supporters. “I had people sidling up to me, saying ‘Hey, Deb—what about a job for my wife, or son, or daughter?’ ” she says. “I had to say, ‘Hey buddy, forget it.’ Favors for pals are the kind of stuff we came to Ottawa to eliminate, not perpetuate.”

Do as we say, not as we do. To a certain measure, that describes the attitude of Canadians towards their elected politicians. According to the Maclean’s/CTV poll, many respondents see nothing wrong with cheating on their expense accounts or evading taxes—but are appalled by the suggestion that politicians might do likewise. They agree, overwhelmingly, with the statement that “too many people who seek public office do so for financial gain.” And they are largely convinced, despite the double

standard they apply to their own behavior and that of elected officials, that their expectations of politicians are not unrealistic.

It is almost enough to drive

'One of the sad things about

Svend Robinson,

NDP MP, on the public’s view of politicians:

Canada is that we don’t respect our elected figures. We’re down there with bill collectors.’

a politician to drink—or would have been, in the days when there was less scrutiny of the private lives of public people. These days, it is more likely to drive Grey and between 40 and 50 other MPs to the interdenominational prayer meetings that take place every week on Parliament Hill while the Commons is in session. There, says Grey, an evangelical Christian, “we can all find private comfort and solace from public pressures.”

For Grey and her colleagues, prayer offers a measure of spiritual relief. But another advantage is that it allows stressed politicians to do their reflecting—or complaining—out of range of the inquiring minds of constituents or journalists. If there is one rule that politicians of all stripes quickly learn to live by, it is that it never pays to complain about the expectations of the people who complain about them. “I am a realist,” says Justice Minister Allan Rock, a political neophyte who earned more than twice his present salary of $111,000 when he practised law. “I knew getting into this line of work that people would have expectations of me that I would behave in a certain way. I understand. It’s not that long ago that I was in private life and sharing exactly those expectations.”

Now, perhaps more than ever, satisfying public expectations of probity and restraint is a priority among politicians from all parties. Seizing the moral high ground, after all, is one of the most obvious ways by which political parties can distinguish themselves from their rivals at a time when their policies on a range of important issues appear increasingly similar. All three of the dominant parties in the Commons, for example, favor freer trade among the provinces and with other countries. And the Liberals, who swept to power after nine years of Progressive Conservative rule, have either embraced or only slightly amended Tory policies on such issues as deficit reduction, the reform of social programs and tax reform.

But there is another reason for the present concern for political ethics. Reform, more than any other party in recent Canadian history, has raised the issue and broken with the traditional all-party consensus on such subjects as perquisites. Some

In Canada, we hold politicians up to an unrealistically high standard that is almost impossible to meet.” Agreed Disagreed In general, respondents with less education were more likely to agree that politicians are held up to unrealistic standards. Percentage who agreed, by level of education: Public/some high school LkM High-school graduate ÜSfcjüil College/vocational/technical Attended university ŸXiM “Too many people who seek public office do so for financial gain.” Agreed Disagreed Percentage who agreed, by household income: Under $20,000 $20,000 to $39,999 $40,000 to $59,999 $60,000+

round

of those efforts have appeared misguided or contradictory: Reform Leader Preston Manning, for one, bore at least a faint air of hypocrisy last March when he acknowledged—after years of criticizing such benefits—that he receives a clothing subsidy from the party. But Reform MPs have also campaigned successfully against the use and abuse of expensive government jets, repeatedly pushed for changes to the existing parliamentary pension plan, and boycotted trips abroad paid for by foreign groups.

To a remarkable extent, the Liberals, still soaring in the polls, have also succeeded in projecting an image that meets public expectations. “The two things people want most in a leader are integrity and a sense of responsibility,” says Peter Donolo, communications adviser to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. “If they feel a leader is being straight with them, they will accept the need for tough decisions at times. If not, they will question absolutely everything.”

Even Chrétien’s political foes do not challenge his integrity, or his character. “The Prime Minister,” says Manning, “is a good and sincere man— although, of course, we disagree with him on many policy issues.” Another consideration, says Donolo, “is that if you are going to talk about the need for tough financial measures, as we are, then you have to show some financial responsibility yourself.” To that end, the liberals have imposed a freeze on staff sizes for cabinet ministers, grounded most of the aircraft used for transporting cabinet ministers, and stripped many of the expensive features from the $55-million Airbus jet ordered when former prime minister Brian Mulroney was in power.

On some counts, however, the Liberals have talked a much better game than they have played. More than a year after their election, the Liberals still have not acted on their promise to institute a code of ethics for lobbyists and require them to report fees “in relation to government procurement contracts.” In fact, Bill C-43, the legislation that would result in changes to the existing Lobbyists Registration Act, ended the year bogged down .

in a parliamentary subcommittee. Similarly, the Liberals told voters that they would appoint an ethics counsellor who would “report directly to Parliament.” But once in power, the Liberals retreated from that undertaking; the counsellor,

Howard Wilson, instead reports only to Chrétien. Meanwhile, the party’s plans to introduce legislation by the end of 1994 to reduce the amount of MPs’ pensions were set back, at least until February, after some caucus members bitterly attacked

The higher a respondent’s income, the less likely he or she was to agree that politicians are motivated by money

the plan. Significantly, although the Liberals promised a new sense of “open ness” in government, the debate over pensions took place in confidential caucus meetings.

Still, the Liberals’ judicious blend of symbols and substance in appealing to jaded voters has obviously worked— so much so, in fact, that Chrétien, in a year-end interview with Maclean’s, declared that the single biggest achievement of his government after its first year in power was “the restoration of public faith in ^ our institutions.” That may be stretching the point, but it is probably fair to say that 1 voters are happier with f their political leaders in Ottawa than they have been in some time. One reason may be that when it comes to ethical issues, politicians—despite all the public finger-wagging they receive—are not the only ones to talk a better game than they play.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Ottawa

If someone doing repair work on your home or car offered to lower the price by 20 per cent if you paid cash to avoid taxes, what would yOU do? What should a politician do in the same situation? Report the person to the authorities: m Refuse the offer: 35% 40% Accept the offer: