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Westcott says we can learn from ancient Rome

After posting yesterdays item about whistle-blower legislation, I received an email from Craig Westcott. Westcott is editor of the Newfoundland Post, a former CBC commentator and unsuccessful candidate in the last federal election not to mention an outspoken critic of the Williams Government. Westcott had just completed his own opinion piece on whistle-blower legislation, and offered it up as a guest commentary on my blog. I read through his submission and was impressed with how he looked to the ancient Romans for lessons in democracy and accountability. And I was intrigued by his suggestion that opposition parties take matters of accountability into their own hands, for that inevitable day when they assume the mantle of power. Following is Craig Westcotts bonus commentary. - GM

They Cant Hide Forever

There was much editorial reaction and public hand wringing recently over the provincial government's failure, yet again, to table whistle-blower legislation.

Premier Danny Williams tried to fob off the umpteenth delay by saying he wanted to be careful not to introduce a law that would lead to frivolous complaints, like the kind of requests he gets now, he argued, under the province's Access to Information Law.

It doesn't take a genius to decode that statement: This particular government, the most secretive in our history since Confederation, doesn't want anyone in the civil service blowing the whistle on any of its misdeeds.

Fair enough, register another blow against openness, transparency and accountability. But let the whining end there, because there may be a counter blow in the end. For while Danny Williams controls the agenda now and systematically stems the flow of public information, he won't be able to do it after he's gone. And that's where a lesson from the old Roman Empire is pertinent.

The ancient Romans, alas, took their democracy a lot more seriously than we Newfoundlanders take ours today, and they tried to handle it a lot more responsibly.

For many years in ancient Rome, there was a great fear that a dictator might one day arise. So Roman laws prescribed limits on power. Somewhat like democracies today, there was a separation of powers within the government. The highest-ranking position was that of consul, kind of equivalent to a President, Prime Minister or Premier. Only the Romans had two of them at a time, which in itself divided the power so that one man didn't control everything.

Another limit was that a person who was elected consul could not serve consecutive terms. You could seek the position again, but only after a decent intervening period of years.

As a consequence of that limitation, consuls always worried that the laws they enacted and the decisions they made might be overturned by their successors. And they sometimes were. In fact, if a new administration found that the previous one had enacted a law or policy or had done anything that was contrary to the state's interests, the members of the previous regime could be tried for treason. The ultimate penalty was ritual strangulation.

Now I'm not saying we should strangle any of the current crowd after they leave office, or even shoot them, which is the preferred method of punishment for some, but we should take a leaf from the Romans' book.

And here's the way to do it.

In their policy platforms next election, the Liberals and NDP should serve notice that, if elected, they intend to implement a law that would punish any previous elected official or bureaucrat found to have taken actions that were against the public interest. Such actions could be defined as willfully withholding information from the public; shredding documents; failing to have handled the contracting of services, such as advertising, in a fair manner; failure to keep proper records; failure to respond appropriately to Access to Information requests from the public and media; and so on. Upon conviction, the culprit could be fined and jailed and stripped of their public service pensions.

I believe that knowing such a law was coming down the pike would do a lot to persuade the current crowd in power that they should stop monkeying around when it comes to Access to Information and the handling of government documents. For instance, a chief of staff or communications director, say, who failed to keep an appropriate record of meetings, e-mails and conversations, could be found in breach of the new Public Accountability Act, and punished on a go forward basis by the succeeding regime.

That seems like a fair and appropriate law and I'm confident that lawyers could find precedent for it and scope it in such a way that it could withstand a challenge in court. It could be based on the argument that any person, charged with carrying out the public trust, could reasonably apprehend that it's in the public interest to keep and preserve good records, to protect the public's access to information and to ensure contracts and services are awarded fairly.

Getting back to Rome, most of us have heard about Caesar, whether through history class or by Shakespeare's wonderful play. What most of us probably don't know is that one of the reasons Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded his own country, thereby starting a civil war, was that he was worried that the laws and decisions he had enacted during his days as consul would be wiped away by his successors. He also wanted another shot at the consulship before the appropriate time. He ended up becoming the dictator that everyone feared. And even though many Romans loved and respected Caesar for his foreign conquests, accumulated wealth and unsurpassed power, in the end, they just couldn't abide a dictator. And so some of Caesar's closest friends stuck a dagger in him, repeatedly, in public.

Like I said, the Romans took their democracy pretty seriously. The lesson for us is that despite your best intentions, a dictator can still steal absolute power if you let him. Giving the current administration fair warning that their sins will not go unpunished may be one way to protect our democracy. We might not be able to do much to stem the dictatorial ways of the current regime right now, but we might well be able to reach back and punish them the next time power changes hands.

Who knows from what kind of misfortune such a deterrent might save us?

- Craig Westcott

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Recent comments

  • Mark
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    An interesting argument. But, to assume the role of devil's advocate, what is to stop the leader from implementing a modern, and less terminal, form of another Roman delight: Proscription? Or, has he already?

    You see, in 82 BC Lucius Cornelius Sulla was appointed dictator rei publicae by the Roman people. It seems the cult of personality that had built up around this former general and politician led the masses to believe there was no one else alive who could save the Republic. A struggle had developed between the optimates (aristocrats who wished to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the Plebs) and the populares (still aristocrats but who relied on the peoples assembly and the tribunate to acquire and maintain power). The people put all their hopes into one man and gave him the authority to act with impunity.

    Sulla, with total control of the city and Republic, instituted a program of proscribing, or outlawing, everyone whom he perceived to have acted against the best interest of the Republic. Stripping them of their citizenship, confiscating their wealth and executing them - figures between 1,500 and 9,000 deaths - the sons and grandsons of the proscribed were banned from holding political office.

    The Proscription was run by Sulla's freedman steward, Lucius Cornelius Chrysogonus and many of the proscribed were taken from their homes at night by groups of men all named Lucius Cornelius never to be seen again. Thus a culture of fear developed in the society of any kind of behaviour that could be termed seditious or traitorous. Everyone was looking over their shoulders.

    This strategy was later revived by the second triumvirate: Gaius Octavianus (the future Augustus); Marcus Lepidus; and, Mark Antony, to help them consolidate their power over the Empire after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

    Augustus used the nostalgia of the Republic to keep the new empire in check. Pretending to be a man of the people, this ruthless and power hungry ruler became the de facto King of Rome. So, while proclaiming the rebirth of the Republic Augustus in fact squashed all competition, marginalizing Lepidus and crushing Antony militaristically, and positioned himself as the sole and ultimate authority - First Citizen. August established the Principate (the Roman Empire that was characterized by autocratic rule) and became Emperor for life.

    So, be careful what you wish for. It was Julius Caesar that said: Men willingly believe what they wish.

    And, there's another saying: Those that live by the sword, die by the sword.