A marathon of moral parsing: my head hurts - Macleans.ca

A marathon of moral parsing: my head hurts

Paul Wells on Parliament taking up residence in the gutter

A marathon of moral parsing: my head hurts
Adrian Wyld/CP

Remember when the arrival of a stable majority government was going to allow your members of Parliament to stop squabbling and concentrate on matters of state with a little serenity? Yeah, never mind. It’s starting to look like the circus is never going to leave Ottawa.

Here’s what kind of winter it’s been. Conservative Sen. Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu said every jail cell should come with free suicide rope. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said it might be okay to fire a few warning shots over the head of somebody stealing your all-terrain vehicle. MP Larry Miller mentioned supporters of the long-gun registry in the same breath as Hitler, then apologized, then un-apologized, then un-apologized some more. Basically, he’s glad he said it but sorry you heard it. You know who else had a hard time apologizing? Hitler. Sorry. Sort of.

Then there is the rather thorny bundle of issues surrounding Vic Toews. I met Toews in 1999 campaigning door to door in Winnipeg with his boss at the time, Manitoba’s then-premier Gary Filmon. That particular election didn’t end well for either of them. I remember Toews as a pleasant fellow. He’s always a pleasant fellow, unless you ask him a question in the House of Commons and he suggests your choice is to “stand with us or with the child pornographers.” Which he did on the day before Valentine’s Day.

It was not obvious, up to that point, that we would soon look back on the first half of February with a tinge of nostalgia for lost innocence. Toews apologized, sort of, for the nasty rhetorical corner into which he’d painted opponents of his online surveillance bill. But then somebody launched a Twitter account—under the name “Vikileaks”—that released, in 140-character chunks, excerpts from Toews’s divorce proceedings.

It was a nasty divorce. I’m not familiar with another kind. By sundown on Vikileaks day, half of Ottawa had a theory about who was to blame for the Twitter account, whose owner had already shut it down.

By now the only thing missing to make this the best month ever was allegations of widespread election fraud. And here they are! Right on schedule. The formidable Postmedia reporting team of Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher revealed an Elections Canada investigation into claims that somebody systematically called thousands of voters to mislead them about where to vote.

I’m not going to give you any more of the robocall story, because it’s early days yet; the story has a million moving parts, and John Geddes will be telling you all about it a few pages from now. But if it were ever established that a political party defrauded thousands of voters out of their right to vote, well, that would be a really heavy political scandal.

Needless to say, MPs from every party set about investigating these grave allegations in a serious, non-partisan fashion. Just kidding! Of course they fell on one another like hyenas. Somewhere amid the ruckus, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae got up to admit that one of his staffers had dreamed up the Vikileaks Twitter feed with the lurid divorce details.

So that’s what you missed, if you are at all lucky. What’s it all mean?

Well. I suppose it is possible to establish a hierarchy of yuckiness in all this. On a scale of “zero” to “makes me wanna barf,” condoning warning shots as a remedy to property theft is probably only a two or three. Vikileaks was lurid and ad hominem, but it made legal use of publicly available information. Call it a six.

Neither, we might say as we continue to pick our way through the month’s moral and ethical car wreck, did Toews “deserve” to have his dirty laundry aired because he drew an odious comparison between advocates of Web privacy and pedophiles. It’s actually not true that you force me to be a jerk when you act like a jerk. Former Liberal staffer Adam Carroll, the Vikileaks guy, remained a moral free agent through the whole piece. He gets to own his choices, as Toews owns his.

What else? The NDP’s ground for decrying the election eve robocalls is diminished by their own decision to blitz voters in the riding of St. Maurice with automated calls and then forward the angriest voters to MP Lise St. Denis’s riding office, just because she jumped ship from the NDP to the Liberals. But then my ace moral compass reminds me that annoying St. Denis’s staff and clogging her phone lines is legal, whereas the election eve calls, if organized and linked to one party, would seriously not be legal.

And so on. But actually, pretty early on in this marathon of moral parsing, I’m inclined to reach a more general conclusion, which is that these people are making my head hurt. All of them. Won’t they stop?

We pay them well to go to Ottawa to solve the hard problems. Of course the solutions aren’t obvious. Of course they’re a matter of opinion, and therefore of politics, and politics makes emotions run high, and it’s never going to be a rose garden.

But there’s a difference between a little roughhousing and an entire Parliament spending a month in a moral gutter. We expect more from our MPs than “He started it!” and “You can’t prove it!” Moral outrage in the face of this kind of behaviour is not sufficient but it’s necessary: outrage alone won’t solve a thing, but if we cannot muster any we are lost. Just like too many of these people.