Politics: now virtually consequence-free

Russell Wangersky
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Once upon a time in this country, when a mayor or a cabinet minister made a major mistake, they took responsibility and stepped down from their positions. Sometimes, they came back later, were re-elected or reappointed after a sort of cooling-off period. But at least they stood up and took the freight for their decisions.

And when, exactly, is the last time you heard about that happening?

Now, politicians caught with their hands in the cookie jar or the drug deal spend months, if not years, protesting their innocence, attacking anyone who investigates their actions, and when they are finally caught red-handed, mumble a few words of apology while promising to move forward and do better.

There is no honour among thieves.

It appears that not only is there no honour among our politicians, there’s not even the least little shred of anything beyond selfishness.

Can you argue the media has a role in this?

Sure you can. All you have to do is to watch the live feeds of the reporters covering the Rob Ford debacle in Toronto to see and hear how much they are enjoying taking the mayor of the city down — it’s worse than a bloodsport, hearing their obvious glee at his comments, their small explosions of laughter at his news conference.

And sure, perhaps after all the lies and deceit he deserves more than a little bit of that. That being said, there is a fair amount of darkness in amongst the white-knight journalists, a fair amount of secret pleasure in watching the mighty fall.

But that’s only half the story: politicians are only human, and they’ve been making human mistakes for years. They’ve been greedy, they’ve abused their positions and their power, they’ve found their way into unseemly situations of their own creation.

Something’s changed.

Somewhere in the not-really-all-that-distant past, there was a concept in public office — and in the higher levels of the public service — that people whose actions were beyond the pale resigned. Now, they throw themselves at the mercy of the public for about 12 seconds, before moving on while the voting public can only shake their heads.

But, you might argue, Peter Penashue resigned and went to the people — yes, but only after it  became abundantly clear that election finance violations meant he could lose his seat anyway.

Oh, but Nigel Wright resigned from the Prime Minister’s Office for cutting a cheque for $90,000 to help out Mike Duffy— no, in fact, it turns out he was fired (unless a prime minister is lying), a firing that only serves to deflect attention from his former boss.

Liberal Senator Mac Harb resigned for taking money he wasn’t entitled to — well, he resigned quick enough to protect his pension, anyway.

People don’t leave public office now until they’re literally threatened with arrest. A pox on all their houses.

It is no wonder that a good number of people today can’t be bothered to vote, or express opinions like “they’re all the same.” There’s a big deficit in politics. Once, ministers, premiers and prime ministers took responsibility for actions.

Now, it’s always someone else’s fault, and even when the footprints lead right to their doors, it’s always time to look to the future and “put the past behind us.”

The irony is that only works in the world of politics, where politicians are ones drawing up their own rules.

This is perhaps why we need recall legislation, and why it is that ethics can no longer be expected from politicians, but must be legislated.

Perhaps we need laws that spell out that, if you can be fired for doing something in private business, you can equally be removed from office for doing it as a politician. Politicians may not be able to police themselves any longer; perhaps, then, they have to be far more tightly policed.

Eventually, unlike the federal Conservatives who came to power promising to clean house and instead set the bar even lower for patronage, self-dealing and backroom politics, someone might come to power in this country who doesn’t even want the job but does want to — and does — fill the responsibility vacuum.

And maybe then, voters will begin to believe in politicians again.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: Toronto

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