I cannot tell a lie. The title of this column is stolen from U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s book about the Republican Party and its unofficial media mouthpiece, Fox News.
Some may think the U.S. invented the political lie, though the practice is as old as politics itself. Still, some of the best fibs come from south of the border.
There was former president Bill Clinton’s famous line, “I did not have sex with that woman,” along with the eerily similar whopper last month from former presidential candidate Herman Cain: “I have never sexually harassed anyone.”
Then there’s George W. Bush telling Americans, “I’m spending less than Bill Clinton.”
The editorial on this page laments how the Canadian electorate seems to be developing more tolerance for less-than-honest statements from our leaders. This is alarming, because cynicism and apathy can only lead to even worse behaviour, and undercut the foundations of our democracy.
We expect politicians to avoid the unhealthy temptations that come with public office, but we’re not naïve enough to think it won’t happen from time to time. All we can do is remain ever vigilant, and ask those found culpable to own up and move on.
As the editorial states, however, Conservative house leader Peter Van Loan has taken a different tack. He suggests lies are merely expressions of free speech.
In Van Loan’s world, for example, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda can order her staff to insert the word “not” in a funding order for an aid group, and then tell a Commons committee she knew nothing about it. Free speech reigns.
And now we have Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s continued insistence that his Cormorant helicopter ride out of a fishing hole last year was a planned exercise — despite clear documented evidence to the contrary.
MacKay, of course, is the son of Elmer MacKay, one of former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s senior ministers.
In Mulroney’s day, at least, ministers were usually turfed from cabinet for bad behaviour — or they dutifully fell on their swords. And for most of Mulroney’s tenure, there seemed to be a steady exodus.
Here’s how a 2005 CBC News backgrounder summed it up:
“First there was Robert Coates, who stepped down as defence minister in 1985 after it was revealed that he had visited a strip club in West Germany. … Communications Minister Marcel Masse left over an alleged violation of the Canada Elections Act (he was later exonerated), followed closely by (Fisheries Minister) John Fraser.”
Fraser had ignored warnings from inspectors and allowed tainted cans of tuna to hit store shelves.
The litany continues:
In 1986, Sinclair Stevens stepped down over a controversial
$2.6-million loan to a family company. André Bissonnette, the minister of state for transport, resigned in 1987 over alleged involvement in land speculation. Roch La Salle left cabinet the same year after being charged with demanding a bribe from businesses seeking government favours. Those charges were later dropped.
Supply and Services Minister Michel Coté lost his post in 1988 over conflict of interest allegations, says the CBC article, and Bernard Valcourt stepped down in 1989 after pleading guilty to impaired driving.
Jean Charest left cabinet after trying to talk to a judge about an ongoing case. And Housing Minister Alan Redway made the mistake of joking about having a gun while boarding a flight in Ottawa.
Of course, you might conclude that Brian Mulroney had a bad habit of courting rogues and scoundrels for higher office. Perhaps.
But there’s a more important conclusion.
When you’ve clearly disgraced the office you hold, it’s time to step down. In the old days, they seemed to understand that.
Not so today.
In Stephen Harper’s government, with rare exception, the rule of thumb can be summed up in three words: deny, deny, deny.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
commentary editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.