The Great Canadian Moral Disconnect

In early February, Canada’s auditor general, Sheila Fraser, released what most political observers and pundits consider the greatest financial rip-off in Canadian history. Fraser’s 34-page audit report into Canada’s sponsorship program revealed that $100 million of a total budget of $250 million was funneled to communication firms and other groups friendly to the ruling Liberal Party. Expressing her shock and dismay at the gargantuan fraud, Fraser related, “when we talk about fictitious bills, I never thought I would see something like this in the public service,” reported Canwest News Service’s Elizabeth Thompson. Even Canada’s national police, the RCMP, was not exempt as its administrative department was even implicated in the scandal.

With the use of diagrams and flowcharts, Fraser mapped out the complex and intricate route that various government departments and government corporations used to channel taxpayers’ money to questionable sources. “We found that the federal government ran the sponsorship program in a way that showed little regard for Parliament, the Financial Administration Act, contracting rules and regulations, transparency and value for money,” Fraser wrote in her report, the scope of which covered the program’s transactions between 1997 and 2001.

The advertising campaigns were intended to promote federalism in the province of Quebec by increasing the visibility and prominence of the Federal government. The Federal government’s strategy was to use the sponsorship program to convince Quebecers to stay within the Canadian federation, and therefore avoid the disaster which nearly befell the nation in 1995. In the autumn of that year, the country was nearly torn apart by the Quebec Independence referendum.

Once Fraser’s report was released, the previously untouchable Liberal Party’s political lock on the Canadian public appeared to loosen its iron grip. Prime Minister Paul Martin, who had just two months previously forced out his bitter rival, former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, found that the public was not buying his feigned ignorance of the scandal. And when, as CanWest New Service’s Anne Dawson reported, he attempted to deflect his own culpability in the matter to a “small group of civil servants who orchestrated a very sophisticated coverup”, the official opposition jumped all over him. “This sounds awfully reminiscent of Richard Nixon blaming a small unit in the White House for something he allegedly knew nothing about,” roared Conservative MP Jason Kenney. “I want to know how many Canadian tax dollars were stolen by these sleazy Liberal ad firms ended up in the slush funds and the $12 million leadership campaign of this prime minister?”

Martin fingered the Chretien regime’s Public Works Minister, Alfonso Gagliano, as the principle fall guy, and he wasted no time in recalling Gagliano from his comfortable patronage appointment to Denmark as the Canadian ambassador. Coincidentally, Gagliano was appointed by Chretien as the Canadian ambassador to Denmark after questions started to surface about the sponsorship program and Gagliano’s management of it. It appeared that Mr. Gagliano’s reputation as an alleged peddler of soft money preceded him. Before being shuffled off to Denmark, for instance, the Vatican had refused Chretien’s request to have Gagliano placed in Rome as Canada’s ambassador to the Holy See. As Martin’s floundering continued in the ensuing days, the scandal caused the Liberal Party’s popularity to dive 13% in the polls, falling from 48% to 35% – a feat which even a Howard Dean concession speech would be hard pressed to match.

The Sponsorship Program scandal is merely another instance in a litany of wasteful spending and corruption episodes of the ruling Liberal Party.  The Auditor General has given the government very poor reviews over the last few years on how the government spends taxpayers’ dollars. A couple of years ago, the Human Resource Department squandered $1 billion. In the last couple of years, Canadians have been subject to a federal gun registry that has drifted into outer space carrying $2 billion loonies with it. With that kind of money, the government could have funded a swanky space station to host the next generation of corrupt politicians! And, to add insult to injury, Paul Martin’s family shipping company soaked in $167 million dollars in Canadian government contracts while he was the Minister of Finance. The government previously reported the volume of business with Martin’s company was only $137,000.

The government’s pork barrel strategy of attempting to buy Quebec’s loyalties was simply a reflection of the Chretien regime’s view that national unity could be bought.  If Liberal-friendly ad firms could pocket a little dough and kick some of it back to the Party in power, so much the better.  Instead of fostering unity, however, the scandal’s negative fall-out translated into distrust and disenfranchisement between the Federal government’s relationship with both Quebec and the western provinces.  Prior to the news of the scandal becoming public knowledge, the Liberal Party was making significant gains in Quebec at the expense of its main rival, the Bloc Quebecois – the federal separatist party of the province.  After the scandal’s news broke, though, Quebec voters switched their allegiances back to the Bloc by a whopping 2-1 margin, largely because they believed the province was being insulted and humiliated by the Federal government’s sleazy attempts to buy its loyalties.  On the other side of the country, the western provinces, most notably Alberta, viewed the scandal as yet another tawdry Federal attempt to pander to Quebec interests at the expense of the rest of the country.  It further exacerbated the West’s long held distrust of preferential treatment for La Belle province.

In past days, such scandalous and corrupt practices of the governing party would have assuredly cost them the privilege of governance if only to restore trust in the management of the country’s finances. And while the Liberal Party has lost some significant support across the country, especially in the West and Quebec, these loses for the Liberal Party are, unfortunately, only illusory and transient.

Because of their insistence that moral issues like abortion and marriage should really not be a matter of Party policy, Canadians guard their sexual license as religious dogma. We are very careful to ensure that politicians do not legislate morality even if that means tolerating significant corruption in the process. Commenting on the sponsorship scandal, a liberal journalist summed up the sentiment marvelously, writing:

They were deeply saddened by the revelations…they were shocked; they were even angry.  But one of them veered back to the Liberal mothership.  “Prime Minister Stephen Harper?” [the Conservative leadership candidate] someone said with a delicate eastern shudder.  “What are the alternatives?” someone added.  Besides, said one of the men, “Don’t you believe Martin when he says he didn’t know anything?”  One of the women muttered ominously, “Abortion”. (Christie Blatchford, Globe & Mail, Feb.17.2004)

The hypocrisy of the Canadian electorate is almost palpable.  We don’t want to talk about moral issues during elections. It’s health care.  It’s the environment . It’s the economy, stupid.  In the end, it really all comes down to money, money, money.  But if  social conservatives play even a minority role in a Party which just so happens to be the only alternative to the sleazy corruption of the Party in power, the real and only issue becomes abortion, abortion, abortion for our self-proclaimed “multi-issue” electorate. 

The sponsorship program scandal is merely a logical outcome of the political schizophrenia that has engulfed our western culture in the past few decades. Taking their cue from former “Catholic” Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, both Chretien and Martin – nominal Catholics themselves – tickled the ears of the electorate by assuring them that they would keep their personal morality and religion separate from their public policy positions.  In Canada, voters elect liars because they like to be told smooth lies. Amazingly, this same electorate is “shocked” and “outraged” when the same politicians, who are so eager to abandon their “personal beliefs” about the central questions of human existence, continue their behaviour when they get into power.  Are we really so obtuse to believe that there is a magic switch between our politicians’ personal and public lives?  If we elect politicians who sell out their “personal religious views” to get into office, it is inevitable that the sell-out will continue well into their political careers. Canadians should stop their self-delusion regarding the imaginary line they have drawn between a politician’s public and private life.  Otherwise, they should stop their whining about the sponsorship scandal and open their wallets a little more.  The Liberals will soon need to refill the trough.

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