Musings —06.29.2013 08:43 PM—
If we have a national memory of seven minutes, do scandals matter any more, or at all?
If we have seen and heard everything before, does a new scandal register on our collective consciousness?
It’s been quite a time, has the spring of 2013. At every level, in virtually every part of the country, sleaze and seaminess is, seemingly, the order of the day.
Federally, of course, there is the ongoing Senate expense scandal, which has spawned multiple RCMP probes of Conservative and Liberal senators. The mess has claimed the political career of the prime minister’s highly regarded chief of staff, and left the governing party plummeting in the polls.
Provincially, police are investigating the management of Ontario’s air ambulance service and the destruction of records relating to a couple of gas plants.
In Quebec, an inquiry into political corruption has been underway since late 2011 — and it has claimed an impressive number of politicians, including the last two Montreal mayors.
Municipally, Toronto’s mayor is alleged to have smoked crack cocaine in a video, and he has not sued the media outlets that have made that allegation.
In London, Ont., the mayor has been charged with fraud, and was found to have pocketed thousands from a defunct charity he chaired.
Politicians in Toronto, Mississauga, Winnipeg and elsewhere faced conflict of interest allegations.
At this point, the requisite disclaimers: Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty. No one has been convicted of a crime.
That all said, doesn’t it seem to you that the spring of 2013 has been qualitatively worse than previous years? That we are incontestably awash in political sewage? That, despite a myriad number of laws and regulations and well-funded overseers, things are getting worse, not better?
Perhaps. Maybe. But one thing is undeniably the case: Most of the time, most people don’t give a sweet damn.
There have been only two occasions when they did, and when scandal had a significant impact on the body politic: Forty years ago, when the Watergate scandal forced the resignation of a president. And a decade ago, in Canada, when the sponsorship affair commenced the process that led to the Liberal Party of Canada’s present ignominious third-party status.
Too often, however, it is forgotten that Watergate — the cancer on Richard Nixon’s administration — had been front-page news in both the Washington Post and The New York Times throughout the 1972 presidential race. Despite that, Nixon went on to win more than 60% of the popular vote. If the early days of Watergate mattered to American voters, they certainly didn’t show it.
So, too, sponsorship. After Jean Chretien learned of the mess and called in the RCMP, the Liberal Party reigned in the polls. At the time of his departure in December 2003, in fact, the governing Grits were registering around 60% support in national surveys. Despite the ongoing Mountie investigation, which was in all the papers at the time.
Watergate came to matter only because of the cover-up that followed — and because it was truly the first full-blown scandal that directly involved a sitting president, at a time when the media was still a power unto itself.
Sponsorship had a corrosive effect principally in Quebec, because voters there came to believe they had been swindled into voting for federalism during the 1995 referendum.
Apart from those two examples — apart from Watergate and sponsorship — scandals loom large in the minds of the media and politicians. But not so much the public.
Partly, it is because other things come up; they move on. Partly, it is because there is a grinding sameness to it all, year after year.
Mostly, however, it is because the public has long believed that public life does not attract the brightest or the best.
To them, it attracts only the dregs.