Children can be refreshingly honest. They haven’t yet acquired the veneer of politeness that comes from parents insisting on manners, consideration and decorum.
Don’t get me wrong; I think manners are essential. Politeness is the oil that ensures our social interactions run smoothly: listen while others are speaking, don’t interrupt, give others a chance to share, and if you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all.
And yet, over the past week, every time I have seen Prime Minister Stephen Harper or Mayor Rob Ford in the news, I have been seized with a powerful urge to shriek like a child: “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”
It boggles the mind that the leader of our country and the leader of our largest city can stand up before the public, their constituents, and state baldly that they have not done wrong or they have been misunderstood, or that perhaps there were mistakes, but what’s most important is their commitment to the people.
People do make mistakes; after all, we are human. Sometimes we take the wrong path; sometimes we do the wrong thing. There are consequences to every decision, and if we make the wrong one, we have to wear it and deal with the fall out.
Except in these instances, we have had several months of repeated denials that anything illegal or ethically suspect has occurred. The obdurate stance of these leaders has been shored up by a strategy built on denial, deflection or dismissal. It didn’t happen, it’s someone else’s fault, or it’s irrelevant when we have so many more important things to do, like manage a country or run a city.
Mayor Ford has now been exposed for what he really is: a leader without a moral compass, who believes that even if he has done wrong, he is still the right man to navigate the municipal priorities.
Nor can Stephen Harper hope that Ford’s troubles will cover up the Senate shenanigans that illustrate much of what is wrong with his leadership. Much like a fine veneer covering up inferior or poor quality wood, the prime minister’s facade of moral uprightness has hidden a foundation of self interest built on a very narrow political point of view.
I have been reminded again and again of Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the emperor whose vanity and short sightedness led him to walk through his city naked in the belief that he was clothed in fine robes, until a child stated the obvious.
That one line, “The emperor has no clothes,” clearly embodies the Quaker value of speaking truth to power. Today, the principle has been adopted and integrated in most ethical codes as the duty to speak when illegal or unethical behaviours are contemplated or implemented.
In fact, those voices are now getting louder. Last week, all four papers in Toronto called on Ford to resign. The weekend news feed was littered with commentaries decrying Harper’s behaviour, some even going so far to label him a liar when the inconsistencies contained in his statements were compared and found to represent competing versions of reality.
Sadly, the current missteps and misdeeds of Harper and Ford are not isolated examples in our political landscape.
A closer examination of the issues shows the cause to be primarily one of entitlement, that they are somehow, by virtue of their position, to be exempt from the rules.
Roman emperor and soldier Marcus Aurelius Antonius said, “A man should be upright, not be kept upright.” Perhaps it is time we cleared out the rotten foundations propping up these guys and begin building anew, using the precepts our communities value instead: fairness, transparency, accountability, respect and honour.
Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant living in St. John’s.