Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Running With Scissors

So Justice Gomery released his (Phase I) report today. If you're looking for media reaction, Timmy has some links for you.

I have to say, scandals!! don't really interest me a whole lot. On an intellectual level, I appreciate that it is important for us to keep watch for government officials who don't follow proper procedures, and even more important that corruption like the transferring of funds to crown corporations and the extorted kickbacks to the Quebec wing of the Federal Liberal party is rooted out and exposed - but it just doesn't excite me.

My personal opinion, based on my limited reading, is that Chrétien wanted to a create a sponsorship 'program' to counter the similar efforts of sovereigntists in Quebec. But it seems like he was worried that if he went through the usual process/channels, it would take too long and get bogged down in red tape. Instead he got his chief of staff, Jean Pelletier to personally make sure it got done quickly and he in turn brought in Chuck Guité (says Gomery: "Mr. Guité had a well-known reputation as a public servant oriented to obtaining results by cutting through red tape.").

In order to get things done quickly, Guité bypassed the established (by Chrétien, to prevent the kind of partisan contract awarding that happened under Mulroney all the time) process for awarding contracts. Unsurprisingly, influential ad agencies who stood to benefit from these contracts were probably pushing the process the whole way, and took advantage of the lack of oversight of this program as much as possible. The really fatal decision was the one to contract out to the private sector the job of administering the contract awarding process. You don't have to have read Jane Jacobs 'Systems of Survival' on how corruption inevitably results from confusing public and private sector functions to know that this was a bad idea.

In the end, it seems that an already corrupt Quebec wing of the Federal Liberal party got into the act to do some unorthodox 'fundraising' for the party, and even internal audits and bringing in a replacement for Guité (Gagliano) failed to root out the corruption in the program. From Gomery: "Kroll Lindquist Avey (which carried out the forensic audit for this Commission) undertook an administrative review of the Sponsorship Program in October 2002 for PWGSC to determine if there should be disciplinary action against employees of PWGSC. It reported on February 4, 2003, that 130 of 136 files had instances of noncompliance with the law or with government policies."


Call me a cynic, but I'm not sure this episode really tells us much about the relative moral integrity of the Liberal party vs. the other federal parties. I'm a firm believer that power corrupts and my feeling is that if the Conservative party had been in charge for the same length if time we would have found as many or more similar scandals under their watch. The NDP does have more integrity, in my view, but this is correlated with the fact that they are unlikely to gain power, so those who run for the NDP are generally less interested in gaining power. On the other hand, their inexperience with government might well lead them to fall into more errors of the sort that allowed the sponsorship program to go awry in the first place. It's hard to say.

To me, the bigger lesson here is in the importance of what we generally refer to dismissively as 'red tape'. Sure there are undoubtedly many cases of needless rules and regulations, but on the other hand, government procedure exists for a reason. Sidestepping (or eliminating) this procedure can save time and money, but it is not worth the increased corruption likely to result. Similarly, it can be easier (and cheaper sometimes, but often not) to contract out government services to the private sector, but we need to take care to ensure that core government functions - especially oversight/administrative functions - are kept in the hands of non-partisan public servants.

I will be more interested to hear what Gomery has to say in terms of recommendations for how we can improve the system to prevent recurrences of this breakdown. And also interested to see what the parties promise in the next campaign which should start after Gomery's next (Phase II) report (if not sooner). Clearly, greater protection for civil servants who wish to expose corruption is a must. As Gomery euphemistically notes,
"Only one subordinate, Allan Cutler, dared to challenge Mr. Guité's authority and methods and, as a result, he was declared surplus by Mr. Guité."
No, this doesn't mean that one third of Cutler was given to taxpayers, one third was spent on programs and one third was applied to the debt, it means that he stuck his neck out and Guité, with impunity, took a swing at it. As long as the people who expose corruption suffer more than the people who commit it (even the ones that get caught), we can't be overly confident in the system.

Having said that, I think that in the vast majority of cases, the system does work. While part of me feels it is a waste of time to put so much focus on something with such little impact on taxpayers which happened under a previous government, part of me also feels that if this is the worst scandal anyone can come up with, we're not doing too bad.

I'm glad the Gomery inquiry was called because it does send a clear message that corruption will not be tolerated by the people. If future politicians are not motivated by their sense of morals to avoid sidestepping proper process or engaging in petty corruption, perhaps they will be motivated by fearful memories of this little episode.

But I also think we need to acknowledge that most politicians and public servants work hard with little recognition to make this country better and I wouldn't want talented, qualified people to be discouraged from going into politics or the civil service because they think either that government is always corrupt or that working in government is not worth it because you can never do anything without being worried about how it will be perceived or that you can't get anything accomplished because there is too much red tape.

It's a fine balance, and the Liberals got it wrong in this case. What rule changes will enable us to keep this balance the best in the future? Which party is most likely to implement (and follow!) these new rules? A couple of important questions for the next election.

15 Comments:

  • "I'm glad the Gomery inquiry was called because it does send a clear message that corruption will not be tolerated by the people."

    I'm not so sure that is the message sent or received. If PMPM is reelected, which seems pretty likely - and perhaps even with a majority - the message will be more like "corruption will be tolerated, as long as you can claim 'plausible deniability.'"

    It will be quite the trick, running again on his record as a fearless Finance Minister, relentlessly focusing on waste and mismanagement; but somehow not aware of the government's response to the largest problem of the day (one that involved the very existance of the country he later sought to lead), in the province where he was the senior minister, that largely took place in the city that includes his riding, and that was carried out by members of a party that he was in the midst of taking over.

    Yeah - we won't tolerate corruption. Except when it happens. Except when it's a Liberal. Except when the electoral alternative is "scary." Other than that, we're pretty damn tough on it, you betcha!

    By Blogger deaner, at 3:28 PM  

  • I think the message has been sent, regardless of the uotcome of the next election.

    Even if the Liberals win a majority, do you think they will be saying to themselves that they don't need to be careful about corruption because the voters have shown they don't care? I don't think so.

    By Blogger Declan, at 3:50 PM  

  • Just wanted to add, don't get me wrong, clearly it sends a stronger message if the Liberals are defeated, but I think a pretty strong message has been sent either way.

    By Blogger Declan, at 4:01 PM  

  • The Liberals have tabled a bill that will put something like 12 departments off-limits, i.e. employees will be unable to discuss the business of those depts...for life...under threat of imprisonment.

    Does that sound, to you, like the Liberals heard the message?

    By Blogger Candace, at 4:03 PM  

  • "Even if the Liberals win a majority, do you think they will be saying to themselves that they don't need to be careful about corruption because the voters have shown they don't care? I don't think so."

    I do. Consider that the voters threw John Turner out on his ear in largely response to a great sound-bite about abuse of patronage. Voters then reduced a Campbell's (but really Mulroney's)sitting majority government to 2 seats in response to perceptions of corruption. JC campaigned on an anti-corruption platform in 1993 - and by 1996 he was running the sponsorship program.

    After years of experience and observation, politicians have an understandably low opinion of the electorate - PMPM even tried to pretend that he wanted Belinda in cabinet for her intellectual capabilities. He (and his successor, and on down the line) have ample evidence that the voters will not understand the issue (or can be sufficiently confused about it), will not remember it in any event, and that if they do remember they will not care.

    "The Liberals have tabled a bill... Does that sound, to you, like the Liberals heard the message?"

    Big whoop. What happened in Adscam was already illegal, under the FAA and Elections Act; how many people are going to go to jail? Our problem is not a lack of laws; it is a lack of will to follow the laws, and an abundance of confidence that they will not be found out, that if they are found out the law will not be enforced, and if the law is enforced, the punishment will be lenient (qv, Paul Coffin).

    Dean

    By Blogger deaner, at 4:19 PM  

  • Dean, I think you misread what Candace was saying.

    Candace - do you have a link, or know which bill that is in? I know I heard something along those lines, but it seems elusive to find online. In 'Voltaire's Bastards', John Ralston Saul has a great chapter about secrets and how governments everywhere have been trying to keep more and more stuff secret over time and the Liberals are certainly no exception to this unhealthy trend.

    I liked the proposal from the Green Party that government should have to get permission to keep any document from the public rather than the public having to get permission to look at government documents.

    Dean - you are right about our history of getting angry about corruption but where we (probably) differ is that I think we are, over time, generally making (painful) progress on reducing corruption. And that this will continue as a result of the whole Gomery affair.

    By Blogger Declan, at 6:26 PM  

  • Declan - yes, I think we hold different views on this issue - now there's a suprise, eh? Of course, I would love to be proven wrong...

    Dean

    By Blogger deaner, at 7:48 PM  

  • declan - hopefully I'll have time tomorrow to find a link

    By Blogger Candace, at 11:07 PM  

  • No worries Candace, I don't want to put you to any trouble, I jsut thought if you had a link to hand it might save me some searching.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:59 PM  

  • "The NDP does have more integrity, in my view, but this is correlated with the fact that they are unlikely to gain power, so those who run for the NDP are generally less interested in gaining power."

    heh, look at the ndp in bc... not saying this to prop campbell, cos hes a douchebag, but the ndp did dabble in a bit of croneyism and backscratching. lotsa saskatchewanese (read: ndp loyal) civil servants shipped in, decks built, bingo money spent... heh.

    By Blogger angela, at 12:20 AM  

  • One of the other aspects of this that no one seems to be writing about is how this kind of "corruption" and grey-area politicing was and in some ways is common practice in Quebec.

    My wife, pointed out to me last night, as we watched some of this on the news

    "Why are they surprised Chretien is involved in stuff like this? If you've ever read any of his biographies, he did this kinda thing all the time back in the 60's. Yet he won 3 majorities..."

    That's not to excuse the behaviour, but lets not act all morally superior and surprised to hear this.

    I mean, Harper is sounding like Claude Raines in "Casablanca" everytime he talks about this - "I'm shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover that a person with a history of corruption was acting corrupt!"

    And history shows that the Conservative, in any of their incarnations, were no better; for example, Mulroney in general and Ralph Klein angrily paying back some "missapropriated" puclic money a few years back....

    Declan, you've nailed the problem - we either have a perfect, non corrupt system that works no matter what party or person is in power, meaning lots of red tape and moving very slowly, or, we have a less than perfect system that will eventually catch and punish those responsible and slowly evolve to make itself better over time. I think we have the second system, though perhaps it could evolve a bit faster.

    Again, considering the actions of the CPC over the last year, I'm not sure Canadian voters think they will be any better than the Libersls, corruption wise. And considering most Canadians don't see eye to eye with their policies (if they even know them), why is anyone surprised when the simply choose the Liberals again despite the corruption?

    By Blogger Mike, at 9:35 AM  

  • This is why I love coming here. Sensible thoughts.

    I think I've gone full circle now. From buying Chretien's version of events to dwelling on every rumor and misdeed until the whole country seemed caught up in corruption of one sort or another and finally back to thinking Chretien's version is probably closest to the truth.

    I think the system does work. I think in the vast, vast majority of programs all the appropriate rules are followed and that there is a system that will catch those that don't.

    Not to mix posts but I loved the intro to the next post. Haven't we lost track of a lot of important issues while spending altogether too much time fretting over the seemingly urgent issues around sponsorship?

    By Blogger KevinG, at 11:53 AM  

  • Do you really believe that this behaviour has no impact on other departments? That the Liberals have exterted political influence at Industry, the RCMP, CSIS, Customs, Indian Affairs, Immigration and Public Works, but somehow in no other department?

    A deliberate kickback scheme to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to the ruling party, engineered by the highest levels of government is just a question of balance?

    You point is basically, power corrupts, so let's leave the corrupt party in charge because, like, another party might be corrupt too?

    Well, that's kind of scary.

    Regarding honest civil servants, I have a response here.

    By Anonymous Ginna, at 10:04 AM  

  • Ainge - That whole deck thing seemed really petty but I take your point.

    Mike - I think people are (understandably) reluctant to just say that Quebec politics is corrupt in general.

    Kevin - thanks. Like you say, I think it is a constant struggle to pay attention to what is important as opposed to what is entertaining, both at our own personal level and for the media as well.

    Ginna - You've misread my point. For one thing, nowhere do I advocate that people vote Liberal -it would be an odd thing for me to do since I'm not really planning to myself.

    More generally, my point is that corruption is a bad thing, but there are other bad things, like red tape, like incompetence and bad policy. Focussing on one of these things to the exclusion of the others is unwise.

    You call it "A deliberate kickback scheme to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to the ruling party, engineered by the highest levels of government" but Gomery found no evidence of this.

    Say, we did get mad as hell and switch to a Conservative government in the next election and say they had their own corruption problems (a highly likely scenario - in my opinion). Then what? Vote in the NDP? Is it OK to go back to the Liberals after a couple of years? And say this new government is involved in some form of corruption, then what? We switch again? Two decades later and we haven't chosen a government based on any consideration of policy?

    If the Conservatives take our army into a futile war in Iran, drive the budget into deep red with tax cuts for the rich and roll back gay marriage, do I simply say, well this is the price I had to pay to send a message over the sponsorship scandal?

    Or, imagine that we make the rules so tight that there is no more corruption. But it takes 20 years for the military to buy a plane and $10 billion dollars to build a simple database, what then?

    See Timmy's post for an example of the price of anti-corruption measures.

    You can try to simplify things, and frame it in black and white, but I don't buy it. It *is* about balance, it always is.

    By Blogger Declan, at 4:22 PM  

  • You've summarized my views on this whole issue far better than I possibly could have. Thank you.

    By Anonymous Westacular, at 10:09 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home