Columns

The politics of fibbing

In today’s Ottawa, being a loyal Liberal means never acknowledging mistakes—now or at any other time

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 26 2001
Columns

The politics of fibbing

In today’s Ottawa, being a loyal Liberal means never acknowledging mistakes—now or at any other time

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 26 2001

The politics of fibbing

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

In today’s Ottawa, being a loyal Liberal means never acknowledging mistakes—now or at any other time

For fans of political satire, there will always be a place in literary heaven for George Orwell and his 1946 classic, Animal Farm. The book includes the enduring phrase “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Those who read it will also recall the triumphant cry of “four legs good, two legs bad” from one pig as the animals evict their human owners and take control of the farm. By the end, as the pigs become like the humans they overthrew, that declaration morphs into—without the leaders acknowledging the change—“four legs good, two legs better.”

For people who follow the political process, its all too easy to look at Ottawa and see what passes for life there imitating Orwell’s art. The Libs provide ample evidence: there’s their reversal of their early opposition to free trade, and Jean Chrétiens long-abandoned vow while still in opposition to “scrap” the GST. And there’s the PM’s chastising— also while in opposition—of Brian Mulroney for getting cozy with successive American presidents—a feat Chrétien has sought to emulate ever since taking office. But for real cheek, the best example came last week, when the Libs defeated an opposition motion that echoed word-for-word their 1993 promise to create an independent ethics commissioner.

The interesting thing in all these cases is not so much what the Liberals did in changing their minds, but rather how they did it. After all, free trade has been a terrific success by most forms of economic measurement, and, much as everyone loves to hate the GST, no one has found a more efficient alternative. There is even a legitimate argument against creating an independent ethics commissioner. As some of the PM’s advisers point out, that could limit the prime minister’s authority to discipline cabinet ministers, and put it instead in the hands of an unelected official. If any senior Liberal—the PM or someone else—were to stand up and say something like “we goofed in our initial position, we’re sorry, and here’s why we’re changing it,” everyone could debate the subject calmly— and then, people would likely shmg, and move on.

But the Liberals almost never do that. Instead, they delay, dissemble and deny that they’ve changed their position, even when the evidence is blindingly obvious. After last week’s motion—modelled, it’s worth repeating, on the Liberals’ own promise—the party refused to give MPs a free vote on the issue. Instead, the Libs declared it a “vote of confidence”— meaning any Liberal who voted in favour of a longstanding Liberal promise was actually being a disloyal Liberal, and could be punished accordingly. (Two Liberals did so, while four abstained.) But when reporters asked Liberals to acknowledge

their back flip, most found convenient ways to avoid doing so.

Paul Martin, who co-wrote the 1993 Red Book that contained that promise, slithered around his vote against the motion by declaring: “It never bothers me to vote with the government”

—and thus against his own previous efforts. The Libs were helped because Howard Wilson—the incumbent ethics commissioner who reports directly to the prime minister, and who, by gosh, has never found the PM to be wrong in anything— declared that (surprise!) he had advised his boss that the existing way of doing things is best. That seems to be what led Alfonso Gagliano, the minister of public works, to say that “after we formed the government, we got the explanation that it was not the proper way to do it.” Ahhh, so it wasn’t the Liberals’ fault they changed course: someone—apparently Wilson— made them do it. A good thing for Wilson, then, that he isn’t an elected MP, or he would never be allowed that kind of free thinking.

The most annoying thing about all this is the manner in which the Libs regard truth and fact as disposable commodities, to be reshaped or discarded according to convenience. That’s partly why it was such a pleasant surprise recently to hear that Brian Tobin, while at the annual global economic conference in Davos, Switzerland, publicly acknowledged to Brian Mulroney (also in attendance) that “you were right and I was wrong” in Mulroney’s support and Tobins initial opposition to free trade. Forget for a moment that one motive for Tobin’s outburst of truth was that, as industry minister and leadership hopeful, he desperately wants to gain favour with the business community. His candour remains welcome. By contrast, remember that in 1999, Sergio Marchi, then foreign trade minister, put out a brochure celebrating “NAFTA at five years.” It made no mention of the Progressive Conservatives, who implemented free trade despite vehement critics who included, in particular, Marchi.

The silly notion underlying institutionalized fibbing and historical revisionism is that politics is a blood sport, in which any admission of error, or credit to the opposition, demonstrates mortal weakness. In fact, no one expects others—especially not politicians—to be perfect. And a wholehearted apology goes a long way towards quelling controversy. Look how quickly the fuss abated in the United States over revelations of Jesse Jackson’s longstanding out-of-wedlock affair and illegitimate child after he did a public mea culpa. Most MPs, including Liberals, are decent, hardworking people sincerely trying to make the country better—but they have this uneasy, suspicious relationship with the truth. Sadly for them, that’s what stands out— more than the good things they try to do.