The cheques aren't the real scandal

The underlying premise, writes Andrew Coyne, is that it is MPs’ business to bring home the bacon

The cheques aren't the real scandalIt was as predictable as the tides. Could anyone have imagined otherwise—that billions of dollars could be pushed out the door in such fantastic haste, to no plan or purpose, without being turned into a politicized slush fund? Can anyone really claim to be surprised? When did any government, given control of a honey pot of this size, not abuse it?

We should be precise about just what is the scandal here. The scandal is not that Conservative MPs attached the party logo to the giant novelty cheques that have become the standard prop in government spending announcements. Though it is surely scandalous to pretend the public’s money is the party’s (the reverse is more nearly true), the logo only serves to make explicit what is implicit in all such exercises: that the flow of public funds to a given riding, province, industry or cause is owing entirely to the personal munificence of local MPs, who salute themselves for their generosity and compassion in the hope that their beneficiaries will be moved to do the same. That would have been the message even had there been no Conservative logos on the cheques, or no such cheques to bear them.

Likewise, while it compounds the offence for MPs to be involved in such announcements—as legislators, they’re supposed to be holding the executive to account for how it spends the public’s money, not taking a hand in it themselves—it is scarcely less unseemly for cabinet ministers to be passing themselves off as latter-day Lorenzo the Magnificents in this way. And while the revelations of partisan preference in the distribution of the funds (the Ottawa Citizen and Halifax Chronicle-Herald have reported that 57 per cent of the larger “stimulus” grants went to Conservative ridings, though these are just 46 per cent of the total) add weight to the charges, it would hardly have been better had the pork been spread more evenly—had the Conservatives been engaged in purchasing the loyalty of other ridings rather than simply rewarding that of their own.

Ask AndrewNo, the scandal is more fundamental than that. It is the whole underlying premise that’s rotten: that the business of MPs is to bring home the bacon; that their success or failure should be measured, not on their record as legislators for the nation as a whole, but as contestants in a perpetual free-for-all, each seeking to snatch the spoils of state from the rest. Thus it was often said when the scandal broke that, while the explicit use of the Conservative logo “crossed the line,” there was nothing wrong with MPs claiming credit for bringing government spending to their riding—that indeed that was their job. No, I’m sorry, that is exactly what’s wrong.

To be sure, it is a disgrace for politicians to view the public’s money as their own, as it is for them to encourage others to believe the same. But they would not do so if it didn’t work: if we did not consistently reward them for this behaviour, even demand it. The scandal, that is, is us. The parties treat us like cheap whores because, at bottom, we are.

It isn’t that we can be, as the saying has it, bribed with our own money. Canadians are not such simpletons as that. Rather, we suppose we are being bribed with other people’s money—that the amounts on those novelty cheques come to us, if not from the benevolence of our local MP, then at least from those suckers in other parts of the country, the same ones we curse for filching from our pockets. So all parts of the country are simultaneously convinced, both that they are making out at the others’ expense, and that the others are making out at theirs.

That isn’t to let the Conservatives off the hook. Part of the inevitability of this scandal is the remorseless tragedy of Conservative decline. That the Conservatives should lately have compromised their ethical standards is wholly of a piece with their earlier compromises on policy. Both find a common source in expediency, in the belief that everything must be subordinated to the overarching goal of power. Each little compromise of belief, each small betrayal of principle, each tiny ethical shortcut is justified by the last, and each added to the rest, until at last there’s nothing left of any of them: beliefs, principles or ethics. No, this is not the sponsorship scandal—yet. But this is how sponsorship scandals begin.

Some Conservatives at least have the decency to look uneasy at what their party has become, but the majority are too giddy with self-deceit even to notice. If they have any doubts, they are resolved by appeal to the supreme necessity of winning: by any means, at any cost. But in fact it still matters how you win. It matters, because how far you will go to win the battle will determine what is left when it’s over—because how you win, in the end, is what you win.

As for the Liberals, they have no credibility on this issue whatsoever, given their track record. Does anybody in this country think they would do any differently, once in power? (That is the most frustrating part of this: each party comes into power vowing to clean up the mess left by the previous government, only to end up using the other’s excesses to justify its own.) If they want to be taken seriously, they have to tell us three things: 1) whether they would put a stop to this sort of partisan use of public funds, 2) precisely how, and 3) why on earth we should believe their answers to 1 and 2.

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