Lately, I’ve begun to increasingly feel that I no longer understand the rules that govern our political discourse. I don’t know exactly when it started but, more and more, I feel that the rules have changed…and I didn’t get the memo.
Take the recent news out of Montreal regarding MP and former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler. His constituents have been receiving phone calls in which they are asked who they would support in a by-election and, if asked why they are asking, go on to say there are rumours that Mr. Cotler will resign. (Of course, Mr. Cotler is not resigning and has no plans to.) Ultimately, the Conservatives admitted that they were behind these calls.
What really seemed to set people off, however, was not so much the dirty-tricks campaign itself, but the government’s defence of it. (See here for video of government House Leader Peter Van Loan’s speech in response to Mr. Cotler’s question of privilege on the matter.) That outrage is captured in Bruce Anderson’s piece in the Globe and Mail, especially here:
“Eventually, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan admitted that this was being done on an organized basis by the Conservatives. A sad, cynical enough moment in Canadian politics. Then he took cynicism to a new, jaw dropping level.
No mumbling the normal apologies about “overzealous workers, blah, blah, blah, won’t happen again, etc.” Instead, Canadians were told that this kind of grime should be considered vital free speech – and must be protected, not prevented, by our laws. Efforts to rein it in would have worse consequences than letting it continue. This was the sound of a politician who had left home without an ethical or moral compass that morning.”
Is this level of outrage reasonable, or is what the governing party did basically OK in our race-to-the-bottom, mud-slinging, attack-ad political culture? As Anderson pointed out, the government could easily have offered a “non-apology” apology. So why didn’t they? It’s tempting to ask how the Conservatives would feel if Liberal pollsters called the Prime Minister’s constituents and said there was a rumour Mr. Harper might have to resign because he has been diagnosed with a personality disorder that hampers his decision-making abilities, and how would they vote in a resulting by-election?
But perhaps they would answer that’s fine, all’s fair in love and war (and politics).
Another recent example is Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s use of a Search and Rescue (SAR) Cormorant helicopter in July 2010 to bring him from a private fishing trip in central Newfoundland to an announcement in Ontario. At the time, a MacKay spokesperson said that Mr. MacKay had cut his personal trip short to participate in a search-and-rescue demonstration using the helicopter. However, internal Defence emails obtained through an access-to-information request contradict this story (see here for a good Ottawa Citizen summary of the whole story).
Again, rather than apologize for this misuse of scarce SAR resources, the Prime Minister defended Mr. MacKay (via this Globe and Mail story): “The minister was called back from his vacation and used government aircraft only for government business. And that is appropriate.” More interesting was the comment of Mr. Van Loan, defending the absent Mr. MacKay against a question from Liberal Ralph Goodale in a recent Question Period (from the same G&M story):
“Our government has reduced average annual spending on minister’s Challenger [jet] flights by some 80 per cent compared with the previous Liberal government,” Mr. Van Loan said, accusing Mr. Goodale, a former Liberal minister, of having used the Challengers as a “personal taxi” to get back to his Regina riding every weekend.
Once again, no apology. Not even a non-apology apology (such as “What the Minister did was perfectly appropriate. However, we are re-examining the rules around ministerial use of Forces aircraft to ensure that these aircraft are only used when no other practical alternative exists.”) Instead, we again get the race to the bottom: What the Liberals did was far worse!
So, is the government correct? Is Minister MacKay justified in the use of the SAR helicopter? Is this no big deal, just “appropriate” use of a “government aircraft”?
Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned when I think that, when you’ve really been caught in a lie, you should at least make a pretense of apologizing. Perhaps the new rule is that you never apologize, no matter what, because apologizing is weak.
What do you think? Have the rules changed?
UPDATE (Dec. 7, 2011): The pilot of Mr. MacKay’s Cormorant flight has spoken in defence of the Minister, leading CTV’s Don Martin to write that Mr. MacKay has been “hoisted into the clear” by the pilot’s comments. It remains to be seen if this will defuse the issue, as Mr. Martin believes.