Tolerating bad behaviour

When the Tories attacked Michael Ignatieff for having spent time abroad, he could have retorted that it's no point of pride that you're a parochial ignoramus. Instead he pretended to be one, saying that to know how much the world loves Canada you sometimes need to see it "from afar."

Which is a pity, given the things he might have learned about political scandal if he hadn't spent the whole time gazing adoringly into our navels.

Ignatieff lived for years in the U.S., where they caught Nixon and impeached Clinton, and where Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was found out, kicked out and signed up for reality TV faster than you can say Business Development Bank.

And Ignatieff spent years in the UK, where the Speaker of the House of Commons is the latest, but by no means the last, victim of a juicy political expense-padding scandal. Whereas here Brian Mulroney can hide cash income for years, pay tax on only half of it, then oleaginously declaim, "I have never in my life knowingly done anything wrong."

Do not try this at the CRA, folks. For that matter do not try it in the confessional, either. Nominally, at least, Mulroney is a Roman Catholic, yet if his words are to be taken at face value he believes Original Sin only happens to other people. Like tax bills, receipts and full disclosure, I suppose. But I digress.

Over in the UK, MPs are in scalding hot water over a House of Commons housing allowance scheme as lax as it was generous. It helped them rent or buy second homes in London to conduct parliamentary business even if they lived nearby or, in the case of some Sinn Fein MPs, did not take their seats. And it subsidized not just politicians' mortgages but their big-screen TVs, tennis courts, an ice cube tray, a hot tub and even the clearing of a moat.

But when the Daily Telegraph got hold of the story, a most remarkable thing happened. Three, actually.

First, highly-placed politicians including the Minister of Justice and now the Speaker lost their fancy jobs and maybe their seats.

Second, scores of MPs are now either caught in the slimelight and paying back their subsidies with a sad display of false contrition or trembling at the prospect that they will be next, or face criminal prosecution.

Third, and to me most remarkable, is the rapid emergence of a crushing consensus that even if MPs were technically following the rules, their conduct was wrong and must be punished.

Contrast that with Mulroney's sanctimonious explanation that he didn't answer questions about his hidden income in 1996 because nobody asked because it was hidden so he's totally innocent and angelic. Or Jean Chrétien's weird dealings over the Auberge Grand-Mère. Or Gordon Campbell's drunk driving. Or any number of other Canadian cases where the Bart Simpson rule "I didn't do it nobody saw me do it you can't prove a thing" is good enough even if they did and we can.

Mind you, these British MPs got in trouble by committing the cardinal political sin of being both arrogant and petty.

Let Stephen Harper or Dalton McGuinty promise no new deficits, then write bad cheques for tens of billions on posterity's account, and the public mind just boggles. We know they lied, played us for rubes and took our cash, but the sums are so huge we can't cope. Eighty-four billion might as well be a googleplex. Whereas in Britain they helped themselves to fancy items we understand and might want. Um, except the moat, which presents its own PR challenges because castles just scream aristocratic luxury. As with the Reform Party getting pretty good traction in the early 1990s over subsidized meals and haircuts for MPs, it's generally the small stuff that raises the biggest stinks.

Still, you have to love it.

I take particular delight in seeing a Speaker once praised for trashing traditions like wearing a wig and breeches now being ousted for trashing traditions like respect for public money in public office.

But I think we can all enjoy British politicians being caught cutting themselves a big fat slice of pie because "I'm worth it" (when in fact the public thinks they're skunks) and actually paying the price.

In Canada, however, politicians don't have to be above suspicion, just above conviction. And as usual, it's our fault. Our political culture is to blame, and we're it.

Still, I wonder. During his years abroad did Michael Ignatieff learn anything he'd like to share about how the Americans and the British root out wrongdoing by politicians so vigorously?

Or is he a parochial ignoramus who spent his whole time thinking everyone admired Canada for letting them get away with it?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson