“I wasn’t kissing her, I was whispering in her mouth.”
— Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers
Sometimes, the more barefaced the lie, the harder it is to address. Why? Because when someone makes the effort to stand up and lie right to your face, knowing they have been caught, their audacity leaves you nonplussed — especially when they go on plainly lying and refusing to admit it.
Welcome to the new normal of politics.
There are plenty of reasons people talk about Canada’s growing democratic deficit: people don’t vote because politicians are all the same. Because one vote doesn’t matter anyway. Because it was snowing.
I think it’s because politicians now know they can lie with virtual impunity.
There was a time when, if you caught a politician lying, they would apologize. Or resign.
Now, the rule is just keep on going and bull it out — because the electorate has a short memory, and there aren’t going be any consequences anyway.
You could call it overweening partisanship, but what it really is, is contempt.
We’ve gone past the point where politicians can’t be trusted to make good on the promises they make during the heat of election campaigns. No one expects promises to be kept now.
But the latest deceit is the ability to simply stand up and lie about your actions, either by commission or by deliberate, calculated omission.
And noses grow …
Federal cabinet minister Bev Oda told a parliamentary committee she didn’t know who had changed a critical CIDA document, and later admitted she had ordered the change.
She’s been censured by the Speaker of the House, and is now facing a committee investigation for being in contempt of Parliament. She still maintains she’s done nothing wrong.
A few weeks ago, another Tory cabinet minister was in town. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews was suggesting he had no idea this province needed a new facility to replace Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, because the province’s Liberal MPs hadn’t ever raised the issue.
The Liberals brought forward copies of letters to the minister’s office — let alone regular correspondence from the provincial justice minister about problems with the facility — but Toews did not back down on his wilful blindness.
And it’s not just a problem in federal politics.
Closer to home
Take the province’s defence of its suggestion that Elizabeth Matthews should be the new vice-president of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.
Asked why someone who didn’t seem to meet the qualifications the job required would be picked by the province, Natural Resources Minister Shawn Skinner basically trumpeted the fact that Matthews was a fast learner, and that she had communications skills the provincial government felt the board needed.
That may be true in some limited way, but what mattered more is that Matthews is a former communications director for then-premier Danny Williams.
If she wasn’t, would she have gotten even a look-in at the job?
Did any other fast-learning communications specialists get considered?
No. Good Tory. End of story.
Remember Joan Burke and the original hunt for a new president for MUN? She didn’t interfere in the process — except for the fact that she plainly did.
Tobacco litigation? The provincial government picked what it said was the best law firm for the juicy contract. Of course it was: they picked the only company they actually considered.
But having brazen politicians play fast and loose with the truth has real and practical dangers.
Mortgaging the future
Here’s a simple questions: is the Lower Churchill project as it stands now a good investment for the people of this province?
How would we know? Because someone told us it was?
The Conservatives say it is — but is their support contingent on politically connected firms getting a healthy dose of untendered contracts, now that the Tories have exempted Nalcor from public tendering requirements? That sounds far-fetched, but if you can’t trust them to tell the truth, how can you ignore that possibility?
The Liberals say the project will deliver huge costs and wildly expensive electricity, and that the costs will be borne by anyone who pays an electic bill. Once again, how do you know they’re not lying for their own benefit, knowing that instilling a goodly fear of high electricity prices might push a few more votes their way?
If the project goes ahead as planned, the province will assume billions of dollars of new debt, debt that will have the ability to drastically alter the futures of our children and grandchildren. Before we decide to invest that money, we have to know if the investment makes any sense at all — and if we can’t trust politicians to make even a basic, honest effort to clearly represent the issues involved, we can’t make an informed decision.
The politicians of the day will be long gone, enjoying huge pensions that most taxpayers will never see. Their anointed patronage and porkbarrelling confreres will have the comfort of their political gains. And the lies involved will disappear into the mists of “what was wrong with people back then? Couldn’t they see what was going on? They must have been some stupid.”
Why does it happen? Because like the Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara almost decapitating Max Pachioretty of the Montreal Canadiens last week, we let it happen.
Until there are consequences for the deceit that’s reached the level of bold-faced, unapologetic lies, we can hardly expect a change.
Heck, under parliamentary rules, you’re not even allowed to say that someone lied, even when they clearly have done exactly that.
If you’re a politician, what more permission do you need?
“We weren’t lying — we were just whispering into your ear.”
At least Chico was a professional comedian.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.