Model, Politics

On Political Norms and Scandals

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rang in 2017 with an ethics scandal. Electoral reform and President Trump might have pushed it out of the news, but it still bears talking about.

Maybe it’s just that my memory is fuzzy before 2004, but I feel like there was a point in Canadian politics when scandals weren’t a run of the mill occurrence. It seems like we’ve been treated to a non-stop parade of them since the sponsorship scandal. There was the In-and-Out scandal, that time Maxime Bernier left classified documents with his Hell’s Angels girlfriend, that horrible mess with Afghan detainees, the Robocalls (and associated criminal charges!), the F-35s, the senate, and now the Aga Khan.

There’s also been a host of minor scandals that didn’t even make it into this list, like the $50 million of G8 money spent to make Tony Clement’s riding prettier and that time the PM was rebuked by the International Commission of Jurists. To be fair, the governing Liberals have already had a few minor scandals of their own, like the cash for access dinner that maybe had something to do with a foreign bank getting approval to expand into Canada and Elbowgate (although the real scandal there may have been that we had to hear about it for days on end).

In the face of all of this, I have a confession to make. I haven’t cared about a political scandal in Canada since 2012. Trudeau could give $50 million to an ad agency while blowing up two gas fired power plants and performing lewd acts on a pig and I probably wouldn’t even bat an eye. And honestly, aside from a few partisans in the comments sections of online news, I bet you most Canadians feel the same way.

this is about what it would take for Canadians to be surprised
Not pictured: The pig

Why? Why the apathy in the face of serious and unethical behaviour?

I’d bet on a decade of scandals.

People aren’t outraged anymore because outrage requires norms to be violated. Unless Mr. Trudeau was doing cocaine off the seats of the Aga Khan’s helicopter, this latest scandal is just more of the same. If I lived in Toronto, even coke would be more of the same.

Rona Ambrose pulled off a passable imitation of outrage in question period (despite spending her winter vacation with a billionaire as well) and Mulcair is as angry as he’s always been, but for all their earnestness, they don’t realize that the Canadians who elected Trudeau aren’t going to turn on him without a truly novel scandal. Sure, he promised to fix Ottawa. But if we get one or two less scandals every four years, that will feel like a fix. For his voters to feel betrayed, Trudeau is going to have to do something really bad. And we just aren’t there yet. I don’t even think electoral reform got us there.

Critics called Mr. Harper “The Teflon Man” after no scandal would stick to him. They assumed that this was because of some aspect of Mr. Harper’s personality. They forgot to examine if the problem was larger than that. What if no scandal stuck to Mr. Harper not because of some strange and sinister aspect of his personality, but because of some failure of ours.

What if the lack of any truly damaging scandal during the Harper years wasn’t because of a deal he struck with Mephistopheles? What if it was because we no longer had norms left around that kind of scandal? What if the sponsorship scandal made petty corruption and favouritism boring and banal? What if we’ve lost the ability to expect better, so accept what we get as all we deserve? The answer to all these hypotheticals looks a lot like what we’re seeing right now.

Certainly getting people to even frown about Trudeau’s scandals is an uphill fight for the opposition. The people who voted for Trudeau like him –his approval rating is relatively high, at 48%– in spite of cash for access, his moving expenses, and the ridiculous hullabaloo about elbows. Trudeau’s supporters don’t seem to want to think bad things about him. Worst of all (for the opposition), a lot of Canadians think Trudeau is on their team.

Some of the time, politics is about teams. Our last election was fought on values, so it is perhaps more than likely that this is one of those times. When politics is about teams, you forget about the bad things your own team does, because you really, really don’t want to give the other team any ammunition.

When Harper was in power, the Conservatives didn’t want to hear anything about his scandals. They had a bunch of convincing reasons why they really weren’t that bad. I think they bought their own reasons too. The Conservatives were embattled, locked in what was to them a fight for the nation’s soul. Stephen Harper’s overriding goal was to change the relationship between Canadians and their government. In service of this goal, the Conservatives couldn’t afford to falter. They couldn’t afford to spend any time off of their message of economic stability. They had no time for contrition, not when there were elections to win.

But no time for contrition meant no time for reflection. And as is its eventual wont when out of power, the Liberal party engaged in a lot of self-reflection. They made their whole campaign about ending the nastiness coming from Ottawa. They built up a coalition of people who had been sidelined by Mr. Harper. And on the back of this team, they made their way back to power.

By casting things in terms of a fight for the soul of the country, the Conservatives gave the Liberals their best defense against scandals. They now have the boogeyman of Mr. Harper and his nastiness and cuts to brandish at any member of their coalition who thinks about leaving.

Currently this team is ascendant. So when the Conservatives crow about scandals, they find themselves offside on public opinion. Only the Conservative base wants to entertain the notion of scandals from Mr. Trudeau’s government, because serious scandals would mean the return of the Conservatives. For all who dread that eventuality, scandals must be ignored.

It gets even worse for the Conservatives though. Their earlier willful blindness means they’re just waking up to the fact that Canada is plagued by scandals and it hurts. I don’t know how they do it, but they have an amazing ability to fail to see any of the excesses of the previous government. Watch Rona Ambrose criticize Trudeau. She doesn’t make a single attempt to defend or acknowledge the previous government’s record. She just ignores it, as if it didn’t happen or isn’t worth mentioning.

Maybe this is a rhetorical trick that politicians can do and I’m naively falling for it. Maybe Rona Ambrose knows full well that Stephen Harper was no better than Justin Trudeau, but can’t acknowledge it if she wants her criticism to have teeth. If so, props to her as an actor. When I watch Rona Ambrose, I see a woman who believes that only she can see clearly. As far as I can tell, from her vantage point, Mr. Trudeau is violating a number of norms that the Conservatives resolutely defended for a decade.

But what Rona Ambrose sees as clarity, the rest of Canada sees as myopia. We know that the Conservatives were plagued by scandals for a decade and that the present state of affairs is certainly no worse than the previous one. So the Conservatives come across as sanctimonious. They’re behind the curve. And insouciance will always be almost synonymous with power (and therefore, in popular culture, with cool). The Conservatives care and they care visibly and impotently and a lot of the country can’t help but see this as weakness.

Even worse than being a loser is being a hypocrite and the Tories look like hypocrites as well. We all remember when the Tories were the ones explaining away scandals, not decrying them. Many people are angrier with the perceived hypocrisy than they are about the actual scandals.

Whether the ultimate reason is hollowed-out norms, team-based politics, or rage at Conservative hypocrisy, we’re in a shitty status quo. I didn’t want to find myself completely numb to Canada’s Prime Minister facing an ethics investigation.

Luckily, my partner Tessa still cares about scandals in Canada. And since I spend a lot of time talking with her, she prodded me about my breezy attitude towards scandals. She didn’t quite prod me into caring, but I at least I got to a state of meta-caring. I now care about my lack of care.

We got here because of norms. Political norms are a fragile thing. In Canada, they’re still damaged. We need a decade with as few scandals as possible to give them some time to recover.

I don’t think we’re going to get that. Not like this.

If we can’t count on politicians to police themselves, we have to find ways to make them accountable. We can’t let scandal norms become entrenched. I’ll let David Schraub explain:

There is an extraordinarily narrow range of levers through which one can be compelled to act in Washington: impeachments, being voted out of office, mandatory court orders … it’s not all that large, and it doesn’t cover all that much. Much of what we take for granted our government will do is not legally compelled, but is based on politicians following established patterns of political culture. Among those patterns is that a major scandal will lead to an investigation and some measure of accountability. But nobody forces Congress to launch an investigation, and nobody forces administration officials to resign or even acknowledge scandals reported in the media.

David is writing about America where the situation has become particularly dire. But Canada is also seeing norms deteriorate. That’s why we have to fight for them. Even in mild-mannered Canada, accountability can’t exist without a public outcry.

We have to call or write to politicians and tell them when we’re displeased. We have to press them to acknowledge their mistakes and promise not to repeat them. And we have to be prepared to vote against politicians who won’t desist, even if we like them, even if it means our side losing sometimes.

I’m not at the point of committing to vote against Mr. Trudeau. I think it’s still amateur hour with the Liberals and that they deserve some time to get over their learning curve. I think a lot of Canadians are in the same boat. I bet that Trudeau’s approval rating stabilizes or bounces back over the next few months instead of continuing to fall [1].

So the Liberals have some time, but they don’t have all the way to 2019. You get your first election on promises. The second has to be backed up by results.

Even though I think Trudeau and his Liberals deserve some time to sort themselves out, I don’t think they deserve my complacency. I’m going to post about every scandal, whether it’s on social media or on my blog. I’m going to talk with my friends about the importance of political norms and my displeasure with scandals. When I feel important norms are being violated, I’m going to write to my MP. I’m now committed to actively standing up for our norms, no matter who is in power.

Will you join me?

Epistemic Status: Model


[1] I’m expressing this guess as three ranges I think the approval rating will fall into on the first survey conducted after April 1st, given that the approval rating is currently 48% ^. The ranges and my associated confidence in them are:

  • 38-60% (90% confidence)
  • 42%-57% (70% confidence)
  • 46%-54% (50% confidence)

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