Cover

‘A TOTAL BREAKDOWN OF BOUNDARIES. IT’S ALMOST A PERFECT STORM.’

JONATHON GATEHOUSE April 25 2005
Cover

‘A TOTAL BREAKDOWN OF BOUNDARIES. IT’S ALMOST A PERFECT STORM.’

JONATHON GATEHOUSE April 25 2005

‘A TOTAL BREAKDOWN OF BOUNDARIES. IT’S ALMOST A PERFECT STORM.’

INTERVIEW

CANADIAN POLITICAL scandals have a long-held reputation for being both dull and petty, but the sponsorship affair might just change all that, says Andrew Stark, a professor of management and political science at the University of Toronto. A specialist in ethics and conflict of interest in public life, he also has some first-hand knowledge of what it’s like in Ottawa when the hounds are out for blood—having spent four years as policy adviser to former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Has Canada had more than its share of political scandals?

I don’t think so, but we are particularly bad at handling them. The U.S. has scandals, but they have mechanisms to deal with them. There are independent ethics offices, the rules are long established. Here, it’s only in the last year or so that we’ve even had conflict-of-interest rules for MPs, and we’ve never had an independent ethics office.

How does the sponsorship imbroglio differ from the typical Canadian scandal?

In the garden-variety cases of graft, you have a private individual who makes a contribution to the governing party, then gets a public contract. The difference here is that the individuals seem to have made their contributions not only by digging into their wallets but by channeling public money to the party as well. You have party workers doing government work by handing out contracts, government members doing bureaucratic work by deciding where projects should go, bureaucrats telling companies whom to hire, and private businesses paying people to do party chores. It’s a total

breakdown of all the moral, legal and institutional boundaries that we expect to see observed. It’s almost a perfect storm.

Does that suggest the Canadian electorate is too trusting?

No, I don’t think so. What undermines trust, more than the acts themselves, is when the public sees somebody avoiding responsibility. Martin keeps pointing out that he’s launched the inquiry, that he’s fired people and that he’s personally offended, but those are the actions of somebody holding others accountable, not someone accepting responsibility. That’s the type of behaviour that causes people to become cynical.

Do you think the Mulroney government was better at accepting responsibility?

He had a lot of cabinet resignations.

The acknowledgement that wrongs happened, or that trust was violated, was implicit—and occasionally explicit, in those resignations. Mulroney called his own commission of inquiry into his own minister— Sinclair Stevens—in real time. We didn’t have to wait for a subsequent administration.

If Mulroney was better at public contrition, he’s paid a political price.

The reason the Mulroney government acquired the aura it did I don’t think had to do with the scandals or how it handled them. It had to do with ways in which the prime minister presented himself. He had a remarkable fixation on how he was doing and he couldn’t disguise it.

Do you think Liberals could suffer long-term consequences like the Tories did?

By not stepping up to the plate in any meaningful way, I’d certainly say they deserve to.

Are there hot spots in Canada that are more prone to scandal than others?

I don’t think so. But the Liberals tend to blur the line between the partisan interests of their party and the cause of federalism in Quebec. The lesson is not that we should go easy on the Liberals so we don’t damage unity, but that another federalist force should be built up in that province so federalism isn’t discredited when the Liberals are.

Does rot naturally set in when a government has been in power for a long time?

Essentially that’s true. Until recently, we’ve had a one-party state—the government knew it wasn’t likely to be thrown out. I’m not sure any government in such circumstances wouldn’t run into such problems.

But scandals have arisen in minorities as well.

As a comparative matter, the record of the last 10 years has been particularly bad.

Can you match it up with another period in Canadian parliamentary history?

No. Nothing like the sponsorship scandal has ever occurred, and neither has anything like the steady stream of conflict-ofinterest questions that have engulfed even the prime ministers. I think this scandal comes close to a breakdown of institutional boundaries on a scale that resembles the worst kind of corruption you’d find in a

developing country.

JONATHON GATEHOUSE