Just about everything about the Canada Student Service Grant Program (CSSG) – an effort to compensate students up to $5000 for up to 500 hours of volunteer service during the summer of 2020 – stunk.
From the very idea of paying students to volunteer, to paying them less than minimum wage, to outsourcing the administration of the program at all, to outsourcing it to a charity with close ties to senior members of the government, to the failure of said members to recuse themselves from Cabinet discussions of the program, to the failure of just about everyone in Ottawa to realize that the charity itself was a questionable enterprise, one cannot help but wonder how any of this could have possibly happened.
(For a timeline of the controversy, see here.)
It is therefore hardly surprising that in the aftermath of WE Charity's withdrawal from the administration of the program, the Liberals have lost popular support, the prime minister’s personal approval ratings have declined, and the minister of finance has been replaced.
What I find more interesting is that support for the opposition (pick a party – this post is not a criticism of anyone in particular) has hardly budged.
It seems to me that, in the rush to catalogue the government’s failures with the CSSG, not enough attention has been paid to the disappointing response of the rest of Canada’s political parties.
While we have certainly been told repeatedly that the scandal “reeks of corruption,” I suspect that the less partisan among us would have liked to hear someone recognize that, ultimately, the checks and balances of our liberal democracy preserved the integrity of our system of government.
Thanks to the combination of a free press that kept digging and a minority Parliament that refused to stop asking questions, a government program that was flawed in every which way was stopped in its tracks.
A constructive response from the opposition might still have reminded Canadians that they made the right choice by denying the government a majority.
But it might then have pivoted to what seems to me to be the most significant challenge that the controversy (or scandal, if you prefer) has revealed:
The consequences for elected officials who fail to declare a conflict of interest are failing to deter behaviour that risks undermining public faith in our liberal democratic process.
Once Canadians begin to question, collectively, the integrity of their elected representatives, our entire political system becomes vulnerable to exploitation not just from within, but by external rogue actors as well.
There is no easy solution here.
Issuing even significant fines to those found guilty by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner would punish parliamentarians of lesser means relatively more severely than it would those who can easily afford to pay.
Any sort of automatic dismissal from office would run counter to basic democratic principles.
And waiting for the public to decide the fate of an individual member’s misconduct during the next election risks sending the message that, in the immediate aftermath of the violation, the perpetrator gets a free pass.
Part of the opposition’s job is undoubtedly to oppose, but I suspect that critiques of the government of the day are more likely to resonate when they leave Canadians hopeful of what new leadership might provide – not just cynical about the political process as a whole.
On this front, all four of the opposition parties have disappointed. It is no wonder that their polling numbers have hardly moved.
As soon as I learned of its publication date, I asked the Canadian Forces College's library to order Memorial University professor Alex Marland’s Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada. It will be released by UBC Press next month. Marland understands Parliament’s political culture in a way that few others do. Until Whipped arrives, the second edition of Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them is worth another look. For an academic examination of the role of the opposition in Canada, see David E. Smith, Across the Aisle: Opposition in Canadian Politics.
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