A test of our democracy

Andrew Coyne on why we should be wondering whether this government can be held to basic norms of civilized behaviour

Doctored documents a ‘test of democracy’ says Ignatieff – Toronto Star.

That’s about the size of it. This is about much more than Bev Oda, Minister of International Cooperation. This is about whether this government can be held to basic norms of civilized democratic behaviour.

Or, for that matter, logic. There is, after all, nothing to be debated here. There isn’t any doubt that the minister initially claimed, or at least implied, that the decision to defund Kairos was made by CIDA officials. There isn’t any doubt that those same CIDA officials in fact recommended funding be continued. There isn’t any doubt that the document they signed recommending that she approve funding for Kairos was later altered, comically, by the handwritten addition of the word “not,” to suggest the opposite.

And there isn’t any doubt that Oda lied to Parliament about this addition: the only question is when. Did she lie in December when she told the Commons foreign affairs committee she had no idea who altered the document, or was she lying on Monday when she told the Commons that in fact it was done at her behest? (Or will she claim that, although she directed it be altered, she did not know, as of December, who did it? Is that the Clintonian reed to which she will cling?)

To sum up: She misrepresented what CIDA officials told her, to evade responsibility for what was plainly a political decision. She altered a document, or caused it to be altered, so as to support that lie, that is by falsifying the intent of the signatories (though to what end is unclear: how it could be imagined a handwritten addition to a typescript document would fool anybody?). And she dissembled about her role in that, too: a lie about a lie about a lie.

In times past — not under the last government, but in any previous — a minister who lied to Parliament, even once, would be gone, immediately: if not out of any genuine sense of shame or remorse on the part of the government, then certainly out of a sense that it could not afford to be publicly associated with such deceitful behaviour. But this government, and this Prime Minister, seem instead to be bent on riding this out. They do not deny that she lied. But neither do they acknowledge that she did. They simply do not address the issue at all. Instead they make another point altogether: that the minister was within her rights to overrule her bureaucrats.

Yes, of course she was. She may even have been right to do so, though that is something that can be debated. What cannot be debated, what she had absolutely no right to do, was to misrepresent her bureaucrats’ views, alter documents, and lie to Parliament.

WHICH IS to say: it is the government’s defense of her, more even than the minister’s misconduct, that is now the issue. Ministers in any government will screw up from time to time. Some will even lie. That is fallible humanity. But when they are caught, when the jig is up, when there are no longer any lies to be told, it is to be expected — it has always been expected — that consequences should follow. At the least, one could expect the government to acknowledge that what she did was wrong — or at the very least, to acknowledge that she did it.

If it then tried to keep her on, arguing that the sin was not so great as to warrant a resignation, that would be objectionable enough, and a denial of all previous precedent. But it would at least be a tacit concession that ministers should not lie to Parliament. If it had tried to pretend there were some doubt about what she had done, that would be graver still, since it would be to deny facts that were not capable of dispute, and thus to cast into doubt the very possibility of fact and evidence as guides to public debate. But just to ignore the charge altogether, to carry on as if nothing had happened, takes us into the kingdom of dada.

Moreover, all of this assumes that in fact Oda was acting on her own here: that it was her decision to deny funding to Kairos, her decision to misrepresent her bureaucrats’ advice, her decision to alter the document, her decision to lie about it in committee, and her decision to confess now. But there is an alternate theory, that will strike many as much more plausible: that in fact she approved funding Kairos, that she accepted her bureaucrats’ advice, that she signed the document in its unadulterated form — and that it was someone higher up who ordered her, not only to alter her decision, but to pretend to have done so on CIDA’s advice, with whatever subsequent acts of deception were required — including taking the blame, undeservedly, for having altered the document, with the corollary necessity of admitting, falsely, to having lied to the committee. In other words, the only lie of which she is guilty may be the lie she is telling now.

It would certainly fit a pattern. The ingredients of the Oda affair — secrecy, deception, stonewalling, contempt for Parliament, bureaucrats as fall guys and ministers as pawns — are evident throughout this government. And all stem from the same source: a refusal to deal openly with the public, to explain the reasons for its actions and take responsibility for them — because to do so would require the government to concede that its actions have reasons, an underlying intent, a purpose, a philosophy, an ideology. And the Harper government’s whole philosophy is to have no philosophy, or none that it acknowledges.

If they had simply declared, we do not wish to fund Kairos any more, because we disagree with its aims and methods — because of its hostility to market economics and unbalanced criticism of Israel — that would have caused controversy, but nothing like the mess they now find themselves in. But that, it seems, is a lesson they never learn.  It was, after all, the same government that pretended, falsely, to have had the support of Statistics Canada officials in its decision to corrupt the long-form census.

So, too, in the matter of the Globalive wireless phone application, rather than state openly that it wishes to allow foreign competition in telecoms, and change the law — or attempt to — to allow it, as any normal government would, this government simply declares that Globalive is a Canadian company, in plain contradiction, as a Federal Court judge has lately found, to the facts. The result? Far from convincing the public that it has no ideology, it simply confirms them in the impression that it is both ideological and devious. And since its stratagems and deceptions are invariably found out, we should perhaps add to the list: ideological, devious, and incompetent.

BUT NOW we are beyond the minister, and beyond even this government. Because if this sort of conduct is allowed to stand — the minister’s first, and then the government’s in its backing of her — then it is not only this government that becomes a moral farce, but also Parliament, since it is Parliament’s job to police such things. And if the Parliament we elect can be so effortlessly mocked and defiled, then it is really us who have been as well.

So yes, Michael Ignatieff, this is a test of our democracy. I know what the minister should do. And I know what the government should do. The question is: what are you going to do?

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