ANOTHER VIEW

The dangers of the New Puritanism

CHARLES GORDON March 7 1994
ANOTHER VIEW

The dangers of the New Puritanism

CHARLES GORDON March 7 1994

The dangers of the New Puritanism

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

A New Puritanism sweeps the land. It is based on the notion that anything costing the taxpayer more than $3.98 is an obscenity and any public official who earns more than $50 a week is a moral degenerate.

How Canadians reached this point is difficult to say. We used to be a fairly goodnatured and tolerant people, and it took a truly colossal waste of money to stir us up—a misplaced aircraft carrier, an airport where no airplanes go. Now, just about anything will do it. Let the wrong cabinet minister take a government aircraft and the dogs of the Opposition parties are set loose. Let a bureaucrat use excess postage in mailing out a news release and the hounds of the media begin baying.

It is not the sa

benefits, perks and pensions given to MPs that have caused Canada’s economic difficulties

You can argue that this version of the New Puritanism is at least better than the previous New Puritanism, in which people were threatened with jail for innocently saying “ombudsman” instead of “ombudsperson,” but it is not a pretty sight and it is potentially very costly.

Did it begin with the Reform party or is the Reform party a product of it? Is this obsession with the material side of public service the expression of a wicked hangover from the materialistic excesses of the 1980s? Whatever it is, the New Puritanism both reflects and causes a deep distrust of public officials, particularly elected ones. It also, incidentally, distracts them from their main work at the same time as it cripples their ability to perform it.

This is not, of course, the way the Reform party sees it. Explaining why members of Parliament should learn to make do with less, Reform Leader Preston Manning said: “I don’t know where they will get the moral authority to talk to recipients of services and civil servants about taking less.” That is one way of looking at it. The other is to ask this question: How can members of Parliament take the difficult and necessary steps to elim-

inate poverty among old people when the main complaint from the Opposition and many of the pressure groups is about the pensions of members of Parliament?

Are the pensions too high? Yes. Are they too easy to get? Yes. Is this the biggest problem facing Canadians? No. It is not the salaries, benefits and pensions given to MPs that have caused Canada’s economic difficulties. Yet, by concentrating on such “problems” as MPs’ pensions and other perks of life on Parliament Hill, the Reformers and their friends divert attention from more serious matters. It is as if, somehow, Canada’s biggest problem is its members of Parliament.

It is not so. In fact, those members of Parliament, if they are supported by an intelligent electorate, are the key to solving the nation’s problems. The way to support them is to stop beating them about the head with the fact that they have pensions and barbershops, restaurants and whatnot, stop treating them as criminals because they leave the photocopier on overnight.

Arguing that members of Parliament should be treated with respect is not always easy. There are excesses. As we have seen,

there are people who abuse their privileges, people who exaggerate their credentials. But for every MP who succumbs, there are dozens who work 15-hour days and earn less than they would in civilian life. They should be treated as if they were important, because they are, and if that means they have their own gym to work out in, so much the better.

The New Puritanism has worked to a certain degree. Some perks have been revised or eliminated. The cost of a haircut in the Senate barbershop is up. Preston Manning is doing without a chauffeur-driven automobile. Reports say he shows up for work every day in a taxi. Added up, probably a few dollars have been saved, minus the cost of holding all the news conferences at which the virtuous sacrifices are announced. But in the long run there are greater costs.

First, if the politicians become convinced that they are part of the problem, they will lose the incentive to work for solutions. Why make all that effort if all you get is people wanting to know what your desk lamp cost?

Second, why run for Parliament, why take the risk, if no honor attaches to the job? The concentrated attack on benefits will, by bringing down the dignity of the office, dissuade from running all the people who didn’t care about the benefits anyway. Then, we will get the Parliament we deserve and we won’t like it much, although it will cost less.

What we now refer to as “perks” came into being at a time when members of Parliament were thought of as, perhaps, the most important people in the country, doing the most important work. Now, there is organized opposition to that idea, an attempt to supplant it with another idea—that politicians are vain and greedy and that government is the greatest hindrance to human progress. So great is the creative capacity of the human mind that it is possible for such thoughts to be held by those who simultaneously defend the tax-deductible business lunch.

The view of government and politicians as essentially worthless is not by any means a new one. What’s new is that the system is under attack from inside by a number of newly elected members of Parliament. It is easy for them to grab headlines with their proclamations of self-denial; somehow, in our newly puritanical world it is easier to create outrage about a first-class airline ticket than about a third-class economic recovery.

Perhaps time and experience may bring about a better perspective. Some Reform members did agree to accept free French lessons, one of the Parliament Hill perks, a tacit recognition that not everything offered to members of Parliament is corrupting. As they become more familiar with the demands and challenges of life on the Hill, they may become more willing to buy the notion that they are important and deserve to be treated as such.

Once Reform accepts the legitimacy of life on the Hill, politics in Canada will be more rewarding, both for the people and the politicians, although the pension plan won’t be as good.