"Hard to believe Obama's claims of ignorance in IRS Scandal"—May 20, 2013 Fox News headline.
"Harper government had to know $90,000 payment to senator crossed all sorts of ethical red lines"—May 20, 2013 Andrew Coyne column.
"NDP at a loss to explain Mulcair's contradictions, silence about bribe attempt"—May 20, 2013 Edmonton Sun column.
"Alleged Rob Ford video raises ethical dilemma"—May 20, 2013 Global News report.
For those of us who make it our business to counteract the cynicism with which most view contemporary politics, it's been a tough week. The cumulative effect of major scandal stories involving our leaders is reason for us to step back and ask serious questions regarding our democratic system. Does politics only attract those with dubious ethics? Would the situation really be different if the political opponents of those currently holding office were in power?
It is discouraging to read stories regarding blatant ethical questions involving the President of the United States, Prime Minister of Canada, the Canadian Leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of Canada's largest city on the same day. Although the natures of these purported scandals are quite different from each other, the bottom line reduces to the same—can we count on our leaders to carry out their office with the basics of integrity and transparency? Whatever the facts are regarding the specific cases, at a minimum it must be said that those involved in each of these cases have been less than forthcoming in explaining themselves. If the events themselves don't merit the scandal label, the lack of explanation almost certainly does.
Whatever partisan likes or dislikes I have regarding the four leaders presently in question, it stretches credibility to suggest that they all have simply tossed their principles once they achieved their office. So what is it? Why is the compass that guides decision-making seem different when viewed from the perspective of leadership?
Alice Wooley, a legal ethicist at the University of Calgary, suggests that insularity is part of the equation. Speaking of how PMO lawyers may have participated in an arrangement which seems to be an elementary breach of the rules, she writes:
Why? Why didn't they see it? My own guess is that the insularity of that kind of office can make you blind to even the most obvious of ethical issues and answers. That you only see how things are or seem from the perspective you occupy, and you lose the ability to see how they will seem from a different perspective.
There is something to this. Familiar with many good people who have held public office, I can attest that it is hard work for them to resist the "insider-talk" and attitude which makes them sound more like an apologist for government to their electors than a voice of their electors to government. Some succeed better than others.
Add to that the basic rule of democratic politics—winning is necessary in order to achieve your agenda. The imperative of power results in clouded judgement where the smaller means are justified by the greater ends.
Compared to the greater cause, many things seem trivial and a nuisance, and those who insist on them seem small-minded and petty. Everything becomes hyper-partisan. A confession that, "Yes, I've messed up and pledge to do better next time," along with genuine contrition becomes politically difficult.
There is no system of regulation which can manage to keep government on the ethical high road and few and far between are the leaders that are able to rise above the ethical landmines that tempt them. That does not mean regulation should be avoided—in fact, the present controversies do speak to the value of rules and disclosures. It also speaks to the wisdom of our federalist system, in which power is divided between various institutions and there are checks and balances—institutional processes—designed to hold our leaders accountable. While the current headlines may fray our confidence in our leaders, the fact that there are headlines on matters that our leaders would prefer be kept silent speaks to the important different tasks of society's institutions.
Back in 1997, the American magazine First Things raised significant controversy with its End of Democracy issue in which judicial activism was highlighted as such subversion to democracy that conscientious citizens might no longer be able to morally support the existing form of government. I'm a long ways from suggesting any alternative to democracy in our present context but the current version of democracy isn't looking all that attractive right now either.