I had hoped to wake up this morning to news from my native Canada that the true identity of “Pierre Poutine” had been revealed. How disappointed I was to read that the saga continues with none of the promised unravelling of this political mystery.
Poutine was pseudonym of the man who registered a cellphone during the 2011 federal election and used it to place a series of deceptive calls to Liberal voters, directing them to non-existent polling stations, where some ripped up their polling cards in protest. Elections Canada is now investigating this and some 30,000-plus complaints (of which it appears the majority were online form letters) of potentially underhanded tactics nationwide.
The Guelph scandal was clearly the work of someone trying to help the Conservatives, with or without the party’s knowledge. We don’t know yet, and we may not know for months or years.
Preston Manning, the architect of modern Canadian conservatism, spoke convincingly about the situation last weekend. “I’ve spent my life trying to get people to participate more in the political system and trying to vote more,” he said, “and the fact that there would be people out trying to work in the opposite direction is deplorable.”
Here is where I, a small-L liberal and progressive who can’t stand Stephen Harper’s Tories, agree with Manning. “If you try to link these things to any one party, it’s a mistake,” said Manning. “If you just target the solutions at one party … this is far broader than one party.”
Manning is right, for reasons Andrew Potter addressed in March 12’s Ottawa Citizen, when he argued that when it comes to bad behaviour, “context matters more than character.” He meant that in the political arena, even otherwise-ethical, “normal” people find ways to rationalize “highly immoral behaviour.” He continues:
Our politicians are not bad people, but they sometimes find themselves in situations where they can rationalize behaving badly. What this means is that if we want people to behave ethically, all we have to do is design our institutions in a way that rewards good behaviour and limits the potential for rationalizations of deviance.
In other words, it’s not the politicians as individuals that are the problem — it’s the context, the system. It’s Canadian politics itself that enables regular people to behave in devious ways.
At the National Post, Andrew Coyne summarizes this context perfectly: “Scandal may be the symptom, but partisanship is the disease.”
Basically, we have a political system that is broken, and the robocalls scandal is just a symptom. At the last election, a Google ad told me that democracy was broken, but Jack Layton would fix it. It was a snappy, effective bit of copy from the NDP, and although I didn’t vote for Layton, I was a fan. But ultimately, Jack was part of the problem with the state of Canadian democracy, too.
Building an election campaign around a single individual, be it Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff or Jack Layton, is a sign of this problem. We have a democracy in which parliament collectively represents the people, but we run elections as if the winning party leader alone represents the people. The idea of a minority government is invoked to scare Canadians, as if a prime minister and a government without absolute power were unthinkable.
The House of Commons, which should be at the heart of informed, democratic decision-making, has been increasingly sidelined by a Conservative government that has taken this kind of thinking to its natural conclusion. Who needs to engage with evidence and consult parliament when you’ve been handed absolute power? And when there is debate, it is slippery, as PostMedia’s Den Tandt wrote recently:
Politicians would be held in higher esteem if they stopped lying – or engaging in the lie’s cowardly cousin, the deliberate avoidance of truth. Wouldn’t they?
For weeks now observers have watched, in an agonized stupor, as the government rags the puck on robocalls, dodging and ducking and avoiding questions with practised, dogged efficiency. It’s a rare day indeed, in question period, that a straight question elicits a straight answer. Indeed, as interim Liberal leader Bob Rae has noted, with obviously growing weariness, it hardly ever happens.
Tandt goes on to note that Rae himself, as Premier of Ontario, had an impressive history of such question-dodging. He advises reading Hansard from 2005 to see how adept Chrétien’s federal Liberals were at evading the truth during the sponsorship scandal. It’s a cross-party problem.
Then there’s the question whether Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system is the best means to ensuring democratic representation in parliament. I resigned myself to a wasted vote in May last year because of a system stacked against hundreds of parliamentary candidates and millions of Canadian voters. Is there really no alternative to ensure that every vote matters?
The robocall scandal is alarming, but as Coyne argued, it’s just a symptom of a bigger problem. If it turns out what happened in Guelph was the work of the Conservative Party rather than a lone ranger, do we really think the Conservatives are the only ones who would stoop to playing dirty tricks? And do we even think such blatant scams are the only problem with democracy in Canada right now?
We need more than a robocall investigation. We need a thorough investigation into the entire system, a nonpartisan inquiry into the question whether democracy in Canada is really working at all.