Getting off Scott-free

By Joe Boulé

Is accountability among elected politicians dead? Recent news headlines would lead many to believe the answer is yes.

Consider the following:

• In 1963, John Profumo, then British war minister, resigned because he had a relationship with a prostitute who also had Russian officials as clients. He then lied about the escapade to the House of Commons.
Today, U.S. President Bill Clinton has decided to remain in office after lying under oath about a sexual affair with a White House intern.
• In 1990, Jean Charest resigned from Brian Mulroney’s cabinet after trying to talk to a Quebec Superior Court judge about an active case.
Today, Solicitor General Andy Scott has made no attempt to quit after allegedly speaking too loudly on a jet plane. Topics overheard on the flight included the Airbus investigation, the APEC inquiry, and the finances of a member of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission.
• In 1873, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald resigned after accepting election funding from a team of prospective railroad tycoons.

Today, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has decided to let a federal inquiry decide his degree of accountability and involvement on RCMP conduct at the APEC summit. Students protestors were pepper-sprayed by police while engaging in acts of civil disobedience.

It seems today, elected officials are less likely to resign and take responsibility for their misdeeds.
It isn’t the first time that accusations of lying and misconduct have taken the centre stage in domestic and foreign politics. But recent events involving Clinton, Chrétien and Scott gives opportunity to look at political accountability.

It wasn’t long ago that the media turned a blind eye to the questionable affairs of politicians such as Roosevelt and Kennedy.

Fred Goodwin, a professor of U.S. culture and history at Carleton University says political scandal isn’t on the rise — it’s just more noticeable.

“There is no longer this distinction between public and private. As more means of communication become available, you’ve got to fill those television news stations with something, so there’s a tendency to drum up news.”

Non-stop, all-news stations such as CNN and CBC Newsworld have played huge roles in breaking down the barriers between public and private affairs.

“(The) insatiable appetite of instantaneous electronic information creates sensation. Once you’re addicted to that, there are no moral boundaries that people won’t cross,” says Duncan McDowall, a Canadian political history professor at Carleton.

McDowall says he doesn’t really think political responsibility has eroded — instead the cosy relationships between senior journalists and politicians have disintegrated.

Political accountability may not be dead in Canada — it may just be slipping through the cracks of a parliamentary system that has few checks and balances compared to the U.S. system.
Reform MP Dave Chatters, says the prime minister has too much power.

“We have no way to hold the prime minister accountable except at election time. We should have a way to hold our leadership and our elected representatives accountable immediately when they do something as outrageous as what’s been going on.”

When asked about NDP MP Dick Proctor’s allegations that Scott spoke too liberally on the now-infamous flight, Chatters says the solicitor general should have resigned. Instead, Scott will be pulled out of the fire using the quintessential parliamentary tactic:“He’ll probably wait until Chrétien does a cabinet shuffle and be moved aside quietly,” he says.

“I think there’s a realistic limit to how much a minister can be responsible for actions within his department. I don’t think it is unlimited responsibility — although that is the perception and that is the way our political system works,” says Bill Casey, a Conservative MP for Cumberland-Colchester.

Casey says Scott “used very poor judgment,” but refused to comment on whether the cabinet minister should be disciplined.

“I’ll leave that up to the prime minister.”

But according to Mitchell Sharp, advisor to the prime minister and a former cabinet minister, political accountability is alive and well.

He says Proctor was just playing “dirty politics” when he took notes on Scott.

“I was brought up with politicians who had a sense of honour,” he says.

“Why didn’t he go to Scott and say ‘Do you know that you can be heard on the other side?’”

“This has been the most accountable government in history,” he says. “(Chrétien) asked me to interview all his prospective cabinet ministers to find out of there’s anything in their record that might cause him any trouble.”

Surely Sharp may want to take another look at the Liberal records before the next cabinet shuffle.

A political system with abundant loopholes and news media that go to questionable lengths to get a story certainly give sufficient reason to ask if political accountability is dead.

But it wasn’t that long ago that Sheila Copps resigned over the GST, Charest resigned after unethical conduct towards the judiciary, and Lucien Bouchard resigned from the Conservatives to form the Bloc Québecois after the Meech Lake Accord.

Political accountability isn’t dead. These days, it’s just harder to find.