Looking for accountability in the TMI Age

Jonathan Gatehouse argues that even public figures are entitled to private lives

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Matt Brown and Maureen Cassidy. Or at the very least, saddened for their spouses and children.

The Mayor of London, Ontario, and his now ex-deputy, stood—separately—before the media this week to cop to a workplace affair. The “inappropriate personal relationship,” as Brown termed it, started “during a period of intense workload,” and didn’t last long. The 42-year-old called it a “grave error of judgment” and apologized to his wife, family and everyone else.

Cassidy, who tearfully resigned from the city’s number-two job but retains her seat on council, spoke of her immense regret. “I’ve caused my family horrible pain and embarrassment,” said the 49-year-old. “I know that this has also hurt the Brown family deeply, and for this I am very sorry.”

Both politicians are taking some unpaid time away from the office and trying to repair the damage at home. It’s not at all clear whether their political careers will survive. But what’s even murkier is why they felt compelled to share their very personal failings with the voting public.

Brown alluded to “rumours” that had been circulating, and a desire to “be as transparent as possible.” But why? Both maintain that their professional duties and decisions weren’t affected by the consensual relationship. (The mayor has asked the city’s integrity commissioner to take a look, just in case.) And even though the local Free Press dubbed it a “sex scandal” after-the-fact, it’s hard to imagine that the paper, or anyone else in the mainstream media could have come up with a justification for breaking the story. All sorts of people have, and will continue to make, similar mistakes. And even public figures are entitled to private lives.

‘But wait! What about Rob Ford?” asketh the Internet trolls. The late Mayor of Toronto frequently showed up drunk, high, or both, in public places. Sometimes he drove himself there. He was photographed with his arms around three alleged members of a street gang—one of whom was later shot dead. Ford was under police investigation for his ties to drugs and violent thugs. He hurled racist insults at a cab driver and sexually harassed city staff. He would disappear from the job for days at a time. There were videos—plural—of him smoking crack. He crossed so many lines that the people of Toronto elected the blandest possible replacement, John Tory, to explicitly guarantee that they wouldn’t have to pay any attention whatsoever to municipal politics for at least four years.

Brown and Cassidy’s painful honesty isn’t likely to spark a trend. The global standard remains that politicians don’t admit to affairs unless they get caught out (Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner), or feel the need to brag (Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi.) If their personal lives become too difficult to handle, they retire to “spend more time” with their families, or “pursue new opportunities” in the private sector. And really, what’s it to the rest of us?

There is, however, a point to made about how we define transparency these days. Brown was elected in 2014 as a new broom—promising to restore faith in city hall after his predecessor, Joe Fontana, was convicted of fraud for saddling taxpayers with $1,700 in expenses related to his son’s wedding while he was a federal Liberal cabinet minister. Perhaps this explains the current mayor’s belief that he must be answerable to the public in all matters that touch upon his job and his judgment.

But let’s not confuse the ballot box with the confessional booth. Voters don’t need to know about the peccadillos, especially when so many major political sins remain obscured. Our current system provides a surfeit of mostly meaningless detail—”proactive” expense disclosures that allow journalist to police the cost of fresh juice,  lobbyist registries that track meetings, but not their content or outcome, “sunshine” salary lists that keep the focus on what individual cops and teachers make, rather than bankers, lawyers and brokers of the one-percent.

And yet, where accountability truly matters, it often can’t be found. Independent investigations into police shootings in Ontario where the justifications, recommendations and even the names of the officers who pulled the trigger are kept private. A tax system that allows the über wealthy to hide behind numbered shell companies, and billion-dollar corporations to off-shore profits, then repatriate them without cost. New security laws that permit preventative arrests on the mere suspicion of future danger, and create secret no-fly lists, compiled via secret evidence, that can only be challenged in mostly secret proceedings.

General Dynamics Land Systems, the London, Ont. armoured vehicle manufacturer, is located just a few kilometres from city hall. The company’s $15 billion, 14-year deal to supply Saudi Arabia with LAVs became a big issue in the 2015 election, with much of the criticism focusing on the Kingdom’s woeful record on human rights, and penchant for using military hardware against its own people. In the past, some of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s closest advisors had panned the agreement, but his new government quietly signed off on the bulk of the sales this April, papering over abuse concerns in a memo stamped “secret.” “To the best of the department’s knowledge, there have been no incidents where [the Light Armoured Vehicles] have been used in the perpetration of human-rights violations,” it read.

Stephen Harper and his former Conservative government had defended the deal as one that supports an “ally in the fighting against the Islamic State,” and would provide London with 3,000 jobs and spin-off benefits for 500 other firms.

Since taking office, Trudeau has been more equivocal, questioning the bargain, but maintaining that Canada must honour it—as a matter of principle. “People have to know that when you sign a deal with Canada, a change in governments won’t immediately scrap the jobs and benefits coming from it,” he said in an interview with the Toronto Star last week. “Because we’re not a banana republic.” Transparency will be the watchword when it comes to future arms sales, he promised. “Going forward, we will make sure that we are much more rigorous and transparent about living up to Canadians’ expectations.”

Unnecessary private disclosures, and hidden facts that should be public.

It’s all a reminder that we live in an age of way too much information, and precious little truth.