Sunday, December 4, 2011

Scott Muses: Would I Lie To You?...Yes, Apparently You Would.

A warning, today is an expansion on the Peter MacKay helicopter debacle. For the most part, it is going to be a 'philosophical and historical' look at just how the hell we've gotten to the point where a politician could stand up in the House of Commons and WILLFULLY lie to the House...Especially lie without any repercussion.

In the 1970s, a scandal unlike anything else the political world had seen at the time was starting to break inside the United States. I refer, of course, to the Watergate Scandal. In 1972, several Republican 'White-House backed' gentlemen broke into the Watergate Hotel (which was being used as the Democratic HQ at the time) and proceeded to wiretap phones, in an attempt to give Republicans an edge in the upcoming election. The men were caught, and the following investigation into their actions led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon only two years later.

Perhaps most the shocking thing of all from this scandal, was Richard Nixon's consistent denial of any involvement or knowledge of the Watergate break in. History has shown at Nixon's involvement was far greater than what he had uttered or claimed, and that the President had lied about the extent of his knowledge. As that became more known, Nixon's defence changed to the idea that the President cannot do anything illegal. And yet, Nixon remains the only person to have resigned the Presidency.

As Nixon became more and more wrapped up in the details of the Watergate Scandal, the Congress of the United States began to take quick action. The move to impeach the President for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress was starting to gain steam. Furthermore, Republicans were joining the process and the Congress would have enough numbers to impeach Nixon. In view of his coming impeachment, Nixon resigned.

This background is incredibly important. Here we have a politician who lied to not only the nation, but to its legislative body, and he found himself punished by the system that he had attempted to manipulate. Nixon would not have remained in office, even if he hadn't resigned, as the impeachment process would have moved next to his removal from office. As such, in the 1970s, lying to the people you were representing was still an offense in which you could, and did, lose the job you were elected to do.

Then, twenty some years later, America found itself in the position of considering the impeachment of a president again. Bill Clinton found himself in a similar position as Nixon, what with Congress considering his impeachment. As everyone should be aware, Bill found himself in a position where he too had actively lied to Congress.

In what is now known as the Whitewater Scandal, Mr. Clinton denied that he engaged in oral sex with a White House intern. This was not the first time that Clinton had been accused to extra-marital affairs, but it was the most significant, given that one of the intern's friends had recorded phone conversations which seemed to conflict with Clinton's denials.

As such, Clinton was impeached under perjury (lying under oath) and obstruction of justice. Despite being impeached by the Congress, the legislative body fell short of getting the votes needed to remove Clinton from office. As such, Clinton was impeached but not removed from the presidency.

The reason I mention this is because this is, as far as I can see, a major turning point in regards to what people will tolerate from their politicians.

To take a Canadian perspective, before getting to the bulk of the argument, let's look at Brian Mulroney.

In 1995, the RCMP launched an investigation into the Airbus Affair; in which it was accused that Mulroney and others of taking 'kickback' payments from Karlheinz Schreiber for the purpose of securing the purchase of Airbus airplanes for Air Canada. Mulroney's response was to not only unequivocally deny these charges, but to launch a libel lawsuit against the Canadian Government.

The government settled outside of court in 1997, paying Mulroney $2.1 million dollars in legal fees and public relations costs.

Fast forward to just a few years ago, when Schreiber (facing deportation to Germany) acknowledged that he did indeed provide payment to Mulroney. Schreiber suggests he paid Mulroney, who was no longer Prime Minister but still a Member of Parliament, $300,000 over the course of three meetings. Mulroney denied the number, arguing instead that he received $225,000 for lobbying work done regarding the purchase of armoured vehicles.

Mulroney continues to admit no wrongdoing; even though his admissions and the admissions of Schreiber contradict Mulroney's libel lawsuit and effectively make a strong case of the former Prime Minister committing perjury and perhaps even obstruction of justice in the 1995 RCMP investigation.

Yet, Mulroney has never been asked to pay back the $2.1 million that he received from taxpayers; nor has he faced any other legal recourse. Granted, Mulroney's reputation was in tatters when he left office and he is generally reviewed as one of the least popular Prime Ministers in Canadian History...But, there was never any official punishment for his actions.

Now, the list goes on. I could cite Jean Chretien's pledge to remove the GST if elected, only to never bring that promise forward. I could cite Stephen Harper's pledge of transparency and open government, only to become one of the most secretive and controlling governments in Canadian History...But, let's not spend too much time focusing on 'campaign promises'.

After all, if every politician who ever turned away from a campaign promise was convicted of a crime, we'd see a lot of our current politicians sitting in a jail cell. But, what is worth discussing, is whether the idea of reversing a campaign promise is a symptom of the system or part of the problem?

So, let's focus on that for a moment. Broken campaign promises seem to exist since the dawn of the social contract. It's easy to look back in history and find examples of the political system being manipulated and deceived. One could look at the French Revolution and the 'Terror' that came from Robespierre under the guise of government. Promises made in a time of change seem to be part of the system, rather than a symptom that has arisen due to corruption of that system. As such, we're not going to hoist every politician who has made a misleading promise during a time of election.

Which brings us to the heart of this discussion. When Nixon breached the law and lied about his involvement, he suffered the penalty of the loss of his office. Indeed, Nixon also lost what little credibility he had left and all good will towards him. But twenty years later, Clinton held onto the office of the presidency. And when he left office, he left with a high approval rating despite Congress passing the measures to impeach him.

How did this happen?

Sadly, as much as I'd like to have a magic bullet answer, none exists. At a time when we demand so much from our politicians, the requirement that they tell the truth seems to have fallen to the wayside.

Look at Anthony Weiner or John Edwards.

Weiner was a vocal democrat, one of the few in Congress who regularly challenged Republicans and their morals and was a damned fine representative. However, his penchant for explicit photographs of himself proved to be his undoing. After tweeting inappropriate photos of himself, Weiner lost the support of many of his constituents and the support of his party, and eventually resigned his seat.

John Edwards was also a good example of the higher standard towards sexual deviance. Edwards committed a mortal sin in the court of public opinion when he cheated on his wife, who at the time was deathly ill with cancer. That revelation alone was enough to get Edwards booted from the race for the presidency.

Matters only got worse when it turned out he had fathered a child with his mistress, and used campaign funds to keep her quiet. He even had a young staffer pose as the woman's boyfriend on campaign trips to prevent people from asking too many questions.

Even before these allegations, Edwards' political career was sunk. And while adultery is a serious charge, the misappropriation of campaign funds is a more serious one in the political realm.

Then we have a slew of Republican politicians, from Herman Cain to Larry Craig, who have stepped out of the sexual norm and paid a serious penalty for their philandering. There is one other thing that many of these people have in common: Most of them, when the scandals broke, denied the charges being leveled against them.

In many cases, they lied.

But it was not the lying that put them into the hot political soup, it was the actions they committed outside of that.

Let's look at George W. Bush.

Bush has done a lot of things, and gotten away with most of them. He suspended habeous corpus for 'terror suspects', he authorized torture, and he mislead a nation and their politicians into a war over (as Michael Moore would say) fictitious reasons.

Bush lied to a nation, and a world, and no consequences have be fallen him over it. I mention this because it warrants a major point: In the political world, lying no longer has any consequences affixed to it. Edwards, Weiner, and others fell from their positions for inappropriate behaviour. Which suggests by its very nature that we hold politicians to a higher regard and expect a certain level of maturity and decorum from them.

But when we fail to punish those who lie to us, we are giving the system carte blanche to keep us from the truth.

Let's look again at Canada.

Stephen Harper's Government was found in contempt of Parliament; AKA they misled Parliament about spending. AKA they lied to Parliament. A slap on the wrist was more or less the only punishment that the government received. Instead of Harper and select cabinet ministers being removed from their offices and being barred from seeking re-election, Harper and many of his cabinet ministers were reinstated in the ensuing election which also gave them a majority.

Despite lying to Canadians, Harper won a majority government.

With that simple act, Canadians cemented the idea that we do not care about the truth. And it's a message which has reverberated throughout the government ranks.

Peter MacKay misuses a government helicopter, and lies to Parliament about it being a SAR demonstration. Yet, the Prime Minister excuses MacKay and says the use of the helicopter was 'appropriate'. Charlie Angus drops an F-Bomb on twitter, and suddenly the government is calling for his resignation.

Somewhere we lost of ideal of political morality. There was a time when the most egregious sin a person in government could commit was that of misleading the nation. Lying to the legislative body was essentially lying to the people of the nation, and it was a practice that no one would tolerate. People who committed this act were punished by the system and removed from it.

But now, lying seems to be permissible by omission of consequence. Now, we only care about how our politicians appear. God forbid they swear on twitter, or use the service to send inappropriate photographs of themselves. Granted, those are not things our politicians should be doing either, but they are no where near as bad as our politicians lying to our faces.

Ask ourselves, if twenty years ago a cabinet minister was caught lying to the public, would they still be in cabinet? Those old of you to answer that question probably answered with a resounding no. So, where did we lose our moral fiber?

Is our sense of morality so misguided that we only condemn those who commit the greatest flaw of being human? Allow me to explain that one. Edwards did a horrible thing by cheating on his dying wife, there is no doubt about that. But to play Devil's Advocate, think of the position he was in. A dying wife, the stress of a public life, and numerous other factors probably made the companionship of another woman a port in the storm for him.

It doesn't excuse his behaviour, but one can see how someone in his position would look for any comfort he could find in such a time. It is human nature to make mistakes and poor decisions; some would also suggest that its human nature to lie.

The difference is mistakes are something that are made in the passion of the moment. An opportunity that arises that seems too difficult to pass up; or a decision made purely in the now. Whereas lying always seems to suggest forethought and self-interest.

A cheating man knows that some day what he is doing is going to catch up with him, and that he will have to answer for his actions. Whereas a lying man is lying for the sake of not having to answer for his decisions. Both of these are serious, but we are only treating one as if it is.

Bev Oda, Peter MacKay, Peter Van Loan, Tony Clement, and numerous others have stood in the House of Commons and openly told untruths. They have denied involvement, they have denied courses of action, and they have done so knowing full well that documentation exists which proves them wrong.

And while some Canadians have stood up and demanded punishment for this behaviour, the punishment doesn't seem to be coming. Rather, these people are allowed to keep their cabinet positions (and the pay increase that comes with it).

I wish I knew how we had reached this point. Our very morality tells us that lying is wrong, and yet we are living in a world where those who do lie are rewarded rather than punished.

I could get into the debate of whether humanity is naturally inclined to evil or not, but that's not really the type of subject to discuss on this blog. What I will suggest, however, is that our system is quickly be defined by this lack of response. Harper's Government has been playing fast and loose with moral questions since being elected in 2006.

Each time they've been caught, the Canadian public's response has been 'So what? Who cares?' And with each muttering of that sentiment, the Harper Government has become more and more deceitful and ambitious.

We need to return to the days when a politician who misled their nation was punished for their actions. If we punish infidelity in the bedroom, we must punish infidelity in the legislature.

There is an idea that we as a people elect the government that we deserve. If we do nothing, then we deserve to have a government that lies to us and does god only knows what behind closed doors. In many ways, that's what we've already done. By electing the Conservatives with a majority, in spite of them being found in contempt, we have sanctioned state dishonesty.

And in a system like that, we will only see more dishonesty.

In four years time, we will have a clearer picture of what the Harper Government has done. We shall see the true extent of their dishonesty, and all of us who did nothing to prevent it will have to live with the fact that we allowed it to happen. Silence is deafening, but so is response to wrongs.

Something is WRONG in Ottawa, and many of us can see it. Perhaps those who don't are happy to be spoon fed the pablum that the Conservatives dish out; to close their eyes and believe that all is well despite evidence to the contrary.

Politics is not a competition of winners and losers. Lying is a tactic that the Conservatives are using to save themselves embarrassment, and they believe that that in turn will help them win the next election. Well, when politicians use methods like that they may indeed win...But it is the nation who will lose when we elect a self-serving government that cares more about public opinion and four-year election plans, then serving the people they are supposed to represent.

I sense I've strayed off topic a bit, so let's close with this final thought:

Honesty is a virtue, it's a phrase we've all heard. For those of us with children, we raise them with the idea that honesty is the best policy. We expect our children to tell us the truth and we equate the notion of truth with the idea of being a good and noble person. If we can expect so much of our children, why can't we expect the same of our politicians?

Surely, if a child has the capacity for honesty a politician must. Either we must hold our politicians to account, for all of their missteps; or we must admit that we simply don't care and abandon the social contract that we have created.

We expect police officers to be truthful in their reports, should we ever be accused of a crime or need them to vouch for us as victims. We expect doctors to tell us the truth about our medical state and not prescribe drugs that we don't need. We expect our teachers to impart the truth about history and our world to our children, not indoctrinate them into a misshapen world view that is inaccurate.

If we expect truth from so many others in the public service, why don't we demand the same of politicians?

I've said this before, but I'll say it again: In the Parliamentary System, we bestow the title of honourable upon those who serve. It's high time we demand that they live up to the title.

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