What does the public do when the laws cannot do anything? What does the public do when there are, in fact, no laws relevant to the issue of the day?
These, and not whether or not Toronto's image is going to suffer, are the questions that I'm asking as Canadians continue to wallow in the griping mire of news stories about a mayor who admits to smoking an illegal drug while in office, and yet will not resign.
There is no law which requires a mayor to resign just because he has admitted to doing something illegal. In fact, there is no law that requires a mayor to resign because he has been charged for doing something illegal. The mayor of London, Ontario, Joe Fontana, has actually been charged with a crime and yet continues to serve as mayor.
This refusal to resign is only the most egregious of host of other violations of political custom. Long-term prorogation of parliaments (federal and provincial) to avoid responsibility for answering questions; the creation of omnibus bills to shunt aside debate; the ignoring of billions of dollars of partisan government waste . . . are all completely legal. As Andrew Coyne notes, only custom and convention stood in the way of past politicians doing such things.
So what do we do?
The typical response is to demand more laws. Or, rather, the first is to move what had traditionally been law only by force of habit, to being enshrined in written code. We could prevent parliaments from being prorogued by Premiers (or Prime Ministers) wishing to dodge responsibility. Indeed there are very smart people making a persuasive case for such things.
But would that solve our problem? Probably not.
Philosophers have long argued that, while laws are necessary, they can sometimes serve to mask underlying social problems. In fact, the creation of more laws can sometimes make politics worse. Aristotle notes that "the law has no power to command obedience except that of habit, which can only be given by time" and, not only time, but the development of right action over time.
In other words, more law can help, but it will only help if it comes alongside more virtue. "Corruptissima re publica plurimae leges. The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government."
In this sense, our frustration with our politicians is less their adherence to the law, but more what we rightly see as a lack of political honour. This is all the more shocking because of the titles they carry. The Prime Minister is Right Honourable; cabinet ministers are Honourable; the Senate is a house of Honour; Mayors are called Your Worship.
But honour is not something you get as a title. As Comment author Robert Jackson notes:
Honour begins with the rules that you choose to follow—using human reason—because you desire a better way of life. Honour requires that you develop principles to transform your daily habits. Then, over time, such practical principles transform the quality of your life.