Oh, the shameless hypocrisy of politicians

"Where the devil was the United Nations?’ bellowed its former special envoy for HIV/ AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, last week in Ottawa.” So reports the latest Maclean’s, describing Mr. Lewis’s reaction to a report that 530,000 more children were infected by HIV in 2006. Well, he should know. I mean that. He should know where the UN was because he was its special envoy on that exact topic. I wasn’t. You weren’t. So why’s he asking us? Why doesn’t he know? How can it be that, in an era of great faith in government in the abstract, so many politicians seem as clueless as they are uncurious about actual government?

For instance, Garth Turner. In his second tour as MP, he went from Tory to Independent to Liberal. And yes, I consider it an important safeguard of our constitutional freedoms, or what’s left of them, that MPs be able to cross the floor in any direction. Whether Mr. Turner and the Liberals will have a long, happy relationship or one marked by flying plates remains to be seen. But I firmly defend his right to move in and out of various caucuses.

I defend that right against Mr. Turner himself, as it happens. You see, back when Stephen Harper recruited David Emerson from the Liberals in 2006, a Tory MP named Garth Turner proposed a private member’s bill requiring MPs who switch parties to resign and run in a byelection. As I argued recently respecting Wajid Khan, this proposal is not merely undesirable but incoherent. It’s ridiculous to suggest making MPs keep the same chair while letting them change how they vote. Or were we going to outlaw free voting in the name of restoring MPs’ independence?

Meanwhile Mr. Turner’s new suggestion that the prime minister call byelections in the ridings of Mr. Emerson and Mr. Khan, whose seats are not vacant, amounts to letting the executive unilaterally expel any legislators whose votes they dislike. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Nor does former justice minister Irwin Cotler’s recent Globe and Mail article insisting that “Canada, in concert with the international community, can exercise the moral, political and diplomatic leadership to save Darfur” and proposing, among other things, sending a UN army into Sudan “with the consent of the Sudanese government if possible, but without it if necessary.” Oh, just that? Apparently. For he concluded: “As the student posters cry out at the ‘Save Darfur’ rallies: ‘If not us who, if not now, when?’”

To which the obvious retort is: How about you, when you were in government? Whatever prevented your Liberals from acting on this crisis between 2003 and 2006 might well be exercising the same inhibiting effect on Canada’s New Government. So it would have been helpful if Mr. Cotler had at least hinted at what paralysed him as a minister of the Crown, a privileged position most of us will never hold.

Then there’s Stephen Harper promising a law saying any interest savings from paying down the national debt must go to personal income tax cuts. Leaving aside the formidable technical flaws in this proposal, I object that no Parliament can bind its successors. If such a law were enacted, a future Parliament wouldn’t have to repeal it to ignore it. Simply passing budget legislation incompatible with it would automatically supersede it. Mr. Harper must know this.

So, you’d hope, would the opposition. MPs who don’t know how Parliament works are like mechanics who don’t know why, or that, exhaust comes out the tailpipe. Yet former finance minister Ralph Goodale instead dismissed Mr. Harper’s proposal by claiming if his party had won the last election they’d have lowered taxes further, a proposition with the merit of being untestable but the defect of being irrelevant. I ask again: Can’t anybody here play this game? Can’t you intelligently critique what did happen instead of whining about what didn’t?

And another thing. I trust you’ve carefully read the Canada Strong and Free proposals for improving Canada’s governance from Fraser Institute Senior Fellows Preston Manning and Mike Harris. Despite a few unsound components, they provide a welcome opportunity to debate bold and comprehensive reform. But we have to start by asking of Mr. Manning and Mr. Harris: Where was any of this when you were in politics, as leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and premier of Canada’s wealthiest and most populous province? I’m hoping the next volume of their series will discuss the problematic incentives that often prevent people in politics from doing, or even saying, what they know is right. We need less bellowing about what governments should do, and more calm discussion of how they should do it, and why they find it difficult.

So never mind the devil. As usual, he’s in the details. Where were you, and what were you thinking?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson