“King and country are one and the same,” Otto von Bismarck, the 19th-century German statesman, once remarked—whatever’s good for the leader must be good for the country, too. As political sentiments go, it’s not particularly convincing in a modern democracy.
Nonetheless, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed to be channelling the Iron Chancellor with his New Year’s Eve video message on Parliament Hill by conflating the interests of Canadians with those of his own party. “Before we leave 2016 behind, I want to thank you,” he said. “Over the last year, we have accomplished a great deal together . . . We cut taxes on middle-class Canadians, and put more money in the pockets of nine out of 10 families . . . we also signed one of the most progressive free trade deals in history.”
Who are “we” in Trudeau’s New Year’s missive? The laundry list of political achievements leaves little doubt Trudeau is referring to the Liberal party, rather than all Canadians collectively. It’s a disappointingly partisan note at a time suited to more generous statements. It’s also reminiscent of Trudeau’s post-election claim that “Canada is back” when he really meant his party was back in power: Canada and the Liberals being one and the same.
Confusing the best interests of the country with their own self-interest is nothing new for politicians. And who really pays attention to what anyone says on New Year’s Eve? Yet Trudeau’s inability to keep state and party separate sets a worrisome tone for a new year that offers numerous opportunities to mistake government advantage for that of the nation as a whole.
The Liberals are now rolling out the first phase of their massive 10-year, $60-billion infrastructure plan. And Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations also come with substantial discretionary budgets. The unprecedented size and importance of these programs will provide countless opportunities to allocate money for partisan reasons—urges the government must resist.
Trudeau’s government also needs to resist growing temptations to revive per-vote political subsidies, another example of politicians confusing personal gain for national benefit.
Recall that in response to public outcry over the Adscam sponsorship scandal involving kickbacks and secret contributions to the federal Liberal party, former prime minister Jean Chrétien banned corporate and union donations and put in their place a $1.75-per-vote annual payment to federal parties based on previous election results.
There’s much to dislike about putting politicians on the dole. It entrenches the status quo by inhibiting new political movements and makes existing parties lazy. It also forces all taxpayers to become political donors. Between 2004 and 2014, when then-prime minister Stephen Harper cancelled them, taxpayer-funded political subsidies rose from an average $8 million per year to $51 million per year while freely given contributions fell from $68 million to $61 million. Why bother with the hard work of signing up new members when you can get a fatter cheque based on past performance?
Yet this discreditable concept has proven surprisingly popular with scandal-plagued politicians. Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne recently unveiled her own $2.71-per-vote subsidy program following a fundraising imbroglio of her own. Now, with the federal Liberals under fire for Trudeau’s attendance at $1,500-a-head functions with wealthy individuals seeking favours from Ottawa, many Liberal MPs are openly advocating the return of federal subsidies. “[It] is perhaps the fairest and most legitimate way of supporting political parties,” Quebec MP Alexandra Mendès told The Hill Times recently. As the favoured solution to Liberal fundraising scandals, such payouts may be set for an unhappy return in the new year.
What’s good for the country is often different from what might be good for the Liberals, or any other political party. In this year of remarkable anniversaries, Canada’s leaders need to keep this in mind.