How scandal has become ingrained in our political way of life

When it comes to corruption, Canadians brace for the worst

by John Geddes

Sean Kilpatrick/CP; Chris Wattie/Reuters; Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The Prime Minister’s explanation once sounded so simple. Confronted last spring by news reports that his then chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had cut a $90,000 cheque to cover Sen. Mike Duffy’s dubious expenses, Stephen Harper said it was the first he’d heard about it, and his top aide was soon out of a job. But RCMP documents filed with an Ontario court earlier this month, as part of the Mounties’ ongoing investigation into Wright’s deal with Duffy, paint a much more complicated picture. As high-level Conservatives connived last winter over how to make Duffy’s expense embarrassments go away, Wright emailed Harper’s top communications advisers, telling them, “The PM knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to agree to repay the expenses.”

As these fresh details surfaced, you could almost hear a collective here-we-go-again sigh wash over the country. Long-running scandal serials have become drearily familiar fare in Canadian politics. York University public policy professor Ian Greene tallied 25 episodes from 1984 to 2006—the years when Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and, briefly, Paul Martin were prime minister—of plausible allegations calling into question government ethics. B.C.’s Liberals survived charges of wrongdoing to win a provincial election last spring, and Ontario’s will face a similar challenge whenever their minority falls. The Charbonneau commission feeds Quebecers an almost daily diet of corruption charges. The whole world rubbernecks at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s wreckage. No wonder Canadians are braced for the worst, making Harper’s challenge that much greater.

Michael Atkinson, executive director of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, has studied how Canadians view the apparent prevalence of scandal in their country’s politics. He sees a wide gulf between international norms and domestic attitudes. In his 2011 study, “Discrepancies in perceptions of corruption, or why is Canada so corrupt?”, published in the U.S. journal Political Science Quarterly, Atkinson detailed how Canada regularly scores among the least-corrupt countries according to authoritative rankings like those of the World Bank and Transparency International, and yet polls show about 40 per cent of Canadians believed corruption in their governments was widespread. “International observers rate Canada’s corruption as virtually non-existent,” Atkinson summed up in an interview. “Canadians, on the other hand, see corruption almost everywhere.”

The gap is largely a matter of defining corruption. The international standard focuses on blatant rot, like the need to pay bribes to conduct normal business. But Canadians, according to Atkinson, tend to detect a more insidious malaise, which he describes as “the system itself being perverted in some fashion, turned away from what its purposes and goals should be to some other purposes and goals.” It’s a cynical mindset. “This standard is just not fair in a system like ours—to judge every politician and assume they are working for somebody’s interest other than the Canadian people,” Atkinson argues.

Not that he lets the politicians off the hook. Even if those in power are overwhelmingly not corrupt, he says the typical handling of isolated lapses compounds those problems. “Politicians make things massively worse by trying to cover things up, which extends the narrative for months and months,” he says. Experts in what is often called “crisis management” agree. Robin Sears, a consultant with Earnscliffe Strategy Group, advises governments, corporations and non-governmental groups. He says public officials facing problems with ethical implications should come clean before information emerges through, say, leaks or court filings. “The aphorism,” Sears says, “is you want to get your news out fast and your bad news out faster, because you want to frame the story.”

According to Sears, a common denominator of recent municipal, provincial and federal scandals is that politicians and their advisers seemed to be banking on damaging information remaining secret, which he calls “having hope as a strategy.” Among federal Conservatives, another key strategic assumption appears to have been their confidence that, even if the Senate expenses issue caused them temporary headaches, the Harper government’s image for competent economic management would continue to define it in the public eye. But pollster Nik Nanos, of Ottawa-based Nanos Research, says the days when the Tories could rest on their economic-policy laurels are over.

Back in June—the month following the revelation that Wright had cut a fat cheque to pay back Duffy’s expenses—a Nanos poll found that 45 per cent of respondents put more weight on Harper’s economic performance than his handling of the Senate issue, while 39 per cent rated the Senate scandal more significant. By October, though, Nanos found those numbers had more than reversed, with 51 per cent of those polled saying they thought Harper’s actions on the Senate issue were more significant than his economic management. The Conservatives’ attempts to deflect blame away from Harper were evidently no longer working. “Back in June, when we were initially doing the polling, the focus was on Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright,” Nanos says. “Fast forward to the fall and the focus is increasingly on the Prime Minister.”

It’s not as if the Conservatives haven’t tried to change the channel. On Oct. 18, Harper flew to Brussels to announce the broad terms of a huge trade deal with the European Union; the following week Duffy commandeered the news cycle with a theatrical speech, defending his actions and denouncing Harper’s, on the Senate floor. On Nov. 12, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that the government is on track to end seven years of deficits and post a surplus before the 2015 election; the next week brought that trove of new RCMP court documents.

In NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, Harper faces an official Opposition leader whose forte is turning any unwelcome development against the Prime Minister. Still, Nanos says Mulcair’s powerfully prosecutorial performances in question period, which have helped his survey ratings as leader, might actually disguise a “party brand” problem. “People like the New Democrats as the Opposition, a party that holds other parties to account,” he says. “But we shouldn’t confuse that with people wanting the NDP to be the government. Those are two different things.” Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau’s strong poll ratings as Liberal leader, Nanos says, have softened somewhat lately as Mulcair’s improve.

With his partisan adversaries vying to be seen as the real alternative, Harper is far from doomed the next time Canadians are called to the polls. After all, B.C.’s Liberal Premier Christy Clark staged a stunning comeback victory in last spring’s election, despite facing her own ethics issues (including multi-million-dollar provincial procurements and strategies for wooing ethnic voters), partly by relentlessly attacking NDP challenger Adrian Dix over his admitted role in creating a fake document way back in 1998. The lesson many political insiders drew from the B.C. outcome is that Clark won by being hard-hitting and Dix lost by trying to run an upbeat campaign.

Harper’s Conservatives, past masters of the art of the attack ad, hardly needed to be reminded that going negative often works. And, like the B.C. Liberals, the federal Tories don’t hesitate to dust off very old stories about their rivals. Confronted with new Senate spending revelations, Harper and his lieutenants often slam Mulcair for having failed to report to police a possible bribe offer, which he rejected, when he was a rookie politician in Quebec in 1994. On Trudeau, Justice Minister Peter MacKay equates the Liberal leader’s open admission that he has smoked marijuana with Rob Ford’s confession—offered only when denial was no longer feasible—that he used crack cocaine.

Add it all up and it doesn’t bode well for a change in tone that might persuade Canadians to take a less jaundiced view of their politicians. Partisan strategists would rather hope ethical problems go away than come clean on them early. The resulting scandals overshadow policy substance. In the elections that follow, attack will always beat uplift on the campaign trail. Step back a few strides and what might have seemed to be separate, messy affairs begin to blur together into an ingrained way of political life.




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How scandal has become ingrained in our political way of life

  1. Of course Canadians are jaundiced, cynical or whatever name you want to put on it. Canadians are fed a steady diet everyday that all politicians are corrupt and in it for themselves. Given their lavish lifestyles and big expense accounts and the sad economic situations facing most Canadians they believe that all politicians are corrupt. The media has a lot to do with the cynicism. The old adage if it bleeds it leads is alive and well in Canada. How often do we see a positive report in the media.

    • The parties don’t help matters with how they behave when the cameras are rolling and the recorders are on. The most common line of defence when confronted with a scandal is ‘the other guys are worse.’ In Question Period, the Conservatives still seem to think pointing to adscam is an appropriate answer when they’re asked about their own misdeeds. I’m sure the party that eventually replaces them will point to the senate scandal when they’re asked by a Conservative opposition about their misdeeds. This scorched earth approach leaves any observer feeling cynical — after all, the only conclusion to be drawn is that they’re all scumbags… you just have to decide on which scumbag you despise the least.

      • Put this way I guess P.E.T was dead on with “the bird”. wait, Rob Ford stole this one too but what do you expect from a “crack”-ed head

      • scumbag taxpayer,to ‘gotta get my money’ 90 G’S SO WHAT?!!!!!!.IS THAT ALL YOU GOT!,sorry,tired of all this shite, 3 billion pissed away on the ontario liberal watch,and you are worried about mike duffy,who paid it back,who the hell cares how! now tell me and even yourself,how the hell is ontario gonna come up with 3 billion of gross mismanagement. scorched earth? you have no idea what you are talking about!

        • I have no idea what you’re talking about either… your post has nothing to do with what I wrote. I guess that makes us even.

        • The 90G were paid by Nigel Wright out of his own money, The taxpayers have not lost even one penny. Its shame that Nigel Wright had to resign because of that he is a decent and very able person and it is a loss for Canada that he does not serve the country.

          • I don’t really believe that Wright would pay $90,000 of his own money and then get kicked out of the PMO!
            Don’t believe anything coming out of that office or the big shots in the Senate.

    • Is interesting that the two prominent figures of the Senate Scandal were once media Stars. That can explain their lack of morals which is prevalent in the media. But can you point out any cases members of Harper Government lavish lifestyles and big expense accounts. Any one that behaved like that was quickly removed.

  2. It’s because the left-wing media in the country treat every accusation as if it’s got to be true, and are more than willing to convict the accused before any evidence is laid out. Even in the smallest of “scandals”.

    You needn’t look any further than the senate “scandal”, where initially the story was about illegal expenses. And when the illegal expenses were PAID BACK IN FULL, that became the story. If the media will portray protecting taxpayers as corruption, then everything will appear to be corruption.

    Meanwhile the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada admits to being a dope smoking hipster, yet that’s just completely ignored.

    It’s amazing how the media can spin and skew things so much, and then express some shock and amazement that the public actually believes the garbage the media sells.

    When the media spend 6 months accusing the government of some unknown impropriety because they insisted a sitting senator pay back taxpayers for illegal expenses, while at the same time Justin Trudeau can continue to do illegal drugs on his personal time, and cover up accusations of sexual harassment by his own colleagues, and the media barely bothers mentioning it. It couldn’t be any clearer why there’s a massive disconnect about what constitutes corruption.

    • Rick,

      Regardless of party or ideological affiliation, one cannot but recognized that there is an inherent problem with the PMO or a political party handing out any amount of money (for whatever reason) to an member of our legislative body. Anything short of that is disingenuous at best on your part.

      • Oh, it looks bad alright, I’m not arguing that. But at the end of the day taxpayers aren’t out a dime, the crooked senators have been banished. So what’s the problem? Why is this still in the news, every single day, despite the fact that everything that went wrong has been remedied already?

        • because – if the allegations are true – it is a conspiracy to bribe a sitting member of parliament by the PMO and possibly the PM himself.

          • Well, the RCMP have already said Harper knew nothing about what was going on.

            And if it was a bribe, what did Wright get in exchange for the bribe?

          • Give it up. Omen is either a paid partisan hack or the stupidest person in Canada. Either way there’s no way he’s going to admit anything anyone says sinks in.

          • I know you are but what am I?

        • the problem with the right wing fanatics is that they see no other measurement except money. All of the minimizers of the senate and PMO scandal quote taxpayers not being out money – without reference to honour, justice, ethics, codes of behaviour or common human decency. Money is their only god – and as such corruption and low-life conduct will continue to reign. I sure miss those progressive conservatives.

          • “without reference to honour, justice, ethics, codes of behaviour or common human decency.” I guess you are referring to McGuinty Liberal government that blew away 1. 2 Billion Taxpayers money , prorogued the legislature for 6 month, lied about it, Erased incriminating Emails

    • Yes, notRick, Mike Duffy’s illegitimate expenses are a spawn of the liberal media bias. I presume the liberal media made Rob Ford smoke crack. That same liberal media which backed Harper overwhelmingly in editorials in the last two elections.

      • Except that Mike Duffy’s illegitimate expenses were repaid months ago, on the direction of Stephen Harper. So why is this still a daily news item, if not because the leftist media is trying to create something out of nothing?

        Why is it a more important story than Justin Trudeau covering up a Liberal senator’s apparent serial sexual harassment of his subordinates?

        If Trudeau can’t get himself to throw a sitting senator under the bus for sexual harassment, why should anybody believe he’d have dealt with the senate spending scandal as decisively as Harper did? Oh that’s right, Trudeau attempted to defend his Liberal senator caught up in the scandal, Mac Harb, until it was clear that Harb was the worst offender of them all.

        • “…on the direction of Stephen Harper.”

          Thank you Rick. Dear Leader has yet to acknowledge this; glad you are starting to see through his BS. Might mean this month’s cheque is a little smaller – though you did manage to get back to your talking points quickly enough.

        • But, notRick, the PM knows nothing about this bribe. He said so himself.

    • So, the media are simultaneously blamed for dwelling on negative stories and for completely ignoring negative stories.

      Which way do you want it, Ricky?

    • So.. in your world, someone smoking a joint on his own time is worse than wanton corruption in the top political office in the country? I’m really glad that you’ve got your priorities in order.

  3. Geddes and Mulcair and Justin and the CBC and the Toronto Star may not like it but there is a transformation happening. People are finally catching on. They are choosing to ignore the sky is falling attitude of the media and the opposition.
    Just look at how foolish Mulcair is beginning to look playing Law and Order cross examiner in Parliament.

    And ask yourself this. Do you really think that such a flawed character like Rob Ford would still be close to 40% in the polls if people were not so pissed at the incompetency of David Miller and the incessant and narrow and vicious campaign by the left and the media? It`s a backlash. Somebody should tell someone in the media about it. Cosh seems to know about it.

    • gee. beginning to sound like the polarity in the lower 49th. However the “Americans always do the right thing”. Like avoiding catastrophe which begins again in January

    • Yup. The MSM in this country still think they’re opinion makers, and they can’t fathom the idea that people get their information from other sources and form their own opinions. You see it after every election. Certain members of the media are just incredulous that people would vote for Conservatives.

      They just don’t realize that most people who go to work every day and pay their taxes don’t get worked up about a $16 glass of orange juice, or whatever “scandal” they’re promoting at any given time.

  4. “Canadians”..what’s that!?!? The good ole’ Hockey (UFC) game?. How about Don Cherry or Rob Ford for PM? Now owned by Rogers? Just copies of Americans or Brits. And look at their “cultures”. Everywhere you look Walmarts, Targets, Hmvs. oh yeah, but let’s not forget Rogers, President’s Choice. Ironically Lord Black tried but now he’s retired to his estate in Rosedale. Starts to make the PQ look good. The CBC is failing and Bell is just AT&T. “There was a time in this fair land” when the CP trains didn’t blow up. Maybe AFN will finally save us. Another irony. Only history will tell this story of another “banana republic”. Cynical, you bet. oh, and Happy Thanksgiving or is that Black Friday? Don’t get crushed now in the stampede

    • Think you’ve emptied that glass of yours one or two many times…

      • speak to me when Mr. Ford is re-elected in 2014. Then we’ll discuss cynicism. oh “cheers” I’m in good company

        • I fore one will vote for Rob Ford over any left wing politicians that wants to save the world with mcGuinty style green jobs while leave the Garbage uncollected and raising taxes for for series of leftist boondoggles.

  5. Corruption is to politics what ants are to a picnic.

    Under Trudeau, Canadians got used to clean government, so much so that they were unprepared for Mulroney. Under Chretien, the same was true. Yes, Martin was corrupt, and so is Harper. But we weren’t looking too closely at them, because their predecessor had not been corrupt.

    Electing a Conservative majority was like going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. We’re just now coming out of the hangover to realize our watch is missing, and so is our wallet. And all we can say to ourselves is, we’re lucky we didn’t wake up in a bathtub full of ice missing a kidney.

    • Chretien was the most corrupt PM this country has ever had!! It was under his watch that the Liberal Party of Canada stole tens of millions of dollars from taxpayers to fund their own party’s operations!

      Meanwhile Pierre Trudeau brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy in a shameless effort to win votes in the east. That’s not “corruption” in your book?

      • “Chretien was the most corrupt PM this country has ever had!!”
        Until Stephen Harper came along.

      • Good ol’ Tony Clement siphons off border security money in an amount far greater than the Adscam total and not only does the PM not can him – he makes him Treasury Secretary to make the skimming that much easier. And Tories don’t even blink.

        And that’s just for starters.

        Canadians have gotten so jaded they just don’t notice anymore unless the police are called.

    • Under Trudeau Canadians got incompetent government that tripled the deficit , so much that Canada’s credit rating plummeted and Canada became a joke. PET was the worst PM that Canada got in the last 50 years.

  6. “The lesson many political insiders drew from the B.C. outcome is that
    Clark won by being hard-hitting and Dix lost by trying to run an upbeat
    campaign.”

    IMHO those strategists would be wrong then. Each case needs to be looked at individually. In the case of Clark she was up against a complacent opponent who sat pat and allowed themselves to be defined. Even more importantly the ndp had a pretty spotty record in BC as economic stewards – that hurt a lot. This game plan[just go negative] may not work say with JT for instance. His party has a pretty solid track record on economic competence and its biggest scandal will be almost a decade old by 2015 – way over the customary week in politics. In addition Trudeau himself is a pretty clean slate, and he has that iconic name in his corner. IOWs he isn’t and old liberal leader tarnished from the past, neither is he the ndp.
    So i don’t think your conclusion does add up, at least not neatly. Attack does not always beat uplift unless there’s a really good reason to assume the new guy will be no better [ or worse then what you are currently putting up with] based on a number of difficult to accurately quantify considerations
    That said anyone wanting to do politics differently in this country has a steep climb ahead of them, since to some degree or other they will be pulling everyone else’s baggage along behind, if not at the beginning, then certainly by the end.

    • Clark was up against an opponent whose policies the electorate wouldn’t buy. Dix’s dishonorable history didn’t help either.

  7. “International observers rate Canada’s corruption as virtually non-existent,” says one policy expert. Compared to whom? Somalia! Canadians have higher standards in matter of ethics.

    • Guess it all depends on your point of reference. The ethics of Harper’s government is far below the level to which he held the Liberals while he was opposition leader – and far below the bar he himself set.

      So yes we may have a higher ethical standard than Somalia but are failing by our own standards.

      Are you suggesting we should model our ethics on Somalia’s?

      • I agree. Somalia was just a joke because they are very corrupted there.

  8. COVER-UP by a deeply repugnant subverting government combined with a severely lame Back-Bench: Secretive Spying Dictatorship: Why ask more questions of the brand, implying a perverted legitimacy: Disgraced Gerstein & PMO: WHEN was Perrin’s computer wiped and by whom?: How dare those ignorant, repugnant, proud Canadians condemn an honest man (Senator Duffy) without due-process? Outrageous, OUTRAGEOUS!: What does Nigel Wright, Irving Gerstein, F35 Lockheed Martin’s Robert Stevens CEO until 1/1/2013 have in common?

  9. DUE-PROCESS inexplicable to party base: Internally subverted
    COVER_UP & complicit Back-Bench cronies: Secretive Canadian Spying Dictatorship
    undermining G20: Omnibus Bills – emasculation of democratic process: Why ask more
    questions of the brand, implying perverted credence of legitimacy: Disgraced
    Gerstein & PMO: How dare those ignorant, repugnant, proud Canadians condemn
    an honest man (Senator Duffy) without due-process: OUTRAGEOUS: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irving_Gerstein

    • You’ve gone off your meds?

    • honest man (Senator Duffy) LOL

  10. Five year mandatory minimum sentences for corrupt politicians, and union
    and corporate officers and directors are needed to make them truly
    accountable.

    • Hear, hear!

  11. So waitwaitwait.. Justin Trudeau decides to come clean early, doesn’t window dress it or try to equivocate it, yet he gets lumped in with this mess of nonsense? A Justice Minister who doesn’t know the law (Marijuana smoking is not in fact a criminal offense here, Mr. MacKay.) with foolish accusations doesn’t put him in the same boat even as Rob Ford, much less Stephen Harper.

    The fact that Mr. Geddes’ article seems to imply otherwise is downright stunning.

  12. I love politics but find I am closing my ears with all the stuff that is going on in the news. After awhile it just becomes so repetitiousus one just turns off. I think that our problems /scandals in this country are so miniuscule in comparison to what goes on else where that we must be becoming a joke. I will never vote for Mulcare or Trudoue and I think that Prime minister Harper has done a lot for this country and deserves to be recognized for it instead of always trying to pull him down. I also think he should just answer the questions asked of him so that we can put out the fire and move on.
    An ordinary citizen

    • I agree. If his Senate thing is the biggest scandal McLean’s and the CBC can bloviate about, they need to find some investigative reporters. Then they should come to Alberta and investigate billions of dollars in high capacity transmission lines being built to carry non-available power to a non-existent market.
      An SNC subsidiary was one of the major players but now thy have announced they are getting out. Hmmm. Over the past number of years, their executives moved back and forth between government and SNC jobs. Memo to McLean’s and CBC; “There is a huge story here. Why not follow some real money?”

  13. I have to agree with the last comment. The CBC is so singularly biased against the Tories it’s ridicules. Let’s get out there and try to find some real news. What’s happening south of the boarder with their Liberal government is a true scandal compared with appointing a few bad apples to the Senate. I would like to hear from one single person who predicted that Mike and Pamela would turn out to be such bad apples after performing so well in their careers. I consider myself a fairly good judge of character and I sure didn’t see this coming. The government can be accused of totally mishandling the problem, but to call it utterly corrupt is a bit of a stretch, unless of course you are the CBC,.

    I still have trouble seeing where Harper is anywhere near as corrupt as John Chretien who was a professional civil servant and retired from politics a multi-millionaire on a civil servants wages. Nobody asks that question. I think everyone who accuses Harper of real corruption just has a problem with his policies which happens to be somewhat concern with the dismantling of the Trudeau nanny state and returning a few freedoms back to the people of Canada. If you haven’t notice, every law passed by the ruling Liberal parties in the past 40 years have done nothing but whittled away at our rights. If you disagree please set me straight. Any law that favors minority groups, gays or women does not count as they are all designed to take away from MY rights, and in the long run, away from the rights they pretend to protect. Ultimately when you stomp on one persons rights, you stomp on every-bodies.

    So please point out one real corrupt action by Harper if you expect me to believe he is the most corrupt Prime Minister in memorable history.

    • “The CBC is so singularly biased against the Tories it’s ridicules.” If you are looking for real scandal look at the CBC. They refuse to account for the 1.2 Billion Dollar that they are getting from the taxpayers under the Journalistic privilege. If there is corruption in is rife in the CBC.

    • Chretien was, and still is, a lawyer, not a civil servant. Your argument is not helped when you et a basic fact like that wrong.

  14. There is no doubt that Mike Duffy is not a person of integrity but I don’t see in what way was Canadian taxpayer wronged by Nigel Wright giving this unworthy person $90,000 of his own hard earned after tax money to pay off Duffy’s ill gotten gains. Can this be compared to the 1.2 billion dollar that McGuinty and his gang blew away and saddled the taxpayers with the bill? Or the hundred million Dollars that Chretien government gave to Quebec liberal associates? This storm in a tea pot scandal is all what the Liberals and NDP have to hide their lack of economic agenda and try to belittle the economic achievement of the Harper Government that is the envy of the world.

  15. PACK OF WOLVES ON THE HILL orchestrated by the (FOOL ON THE HILL – Beatles) – CHIEF DECEIVER – an insult to Common’s Decency and the Peoples of Canada. IN RETROSPECT & DUE-PROCESS INEXPLICABLE TO THE PARTY BASE: the House, Senate and all premature Judgers (Proud Canadians) must apologize publically without
    reservation to Senator Duffy. Everyone has been duped by a deeply corrupting
    plague at the core of government known as Harperizm. Sen. Duffy’s (Audio): http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/duffy-speechmp3/article15006064/

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