June 7, 2005
The Real Problem With Corruption
The recent revelations from the Gomery Inquiry are causing me great concern, but not for the usual reasons. We should all feel outraged at the waste of taxpayers’ money for dubious purposes but, hey, governments are always wasting money. The real problem is the disengagement of the political process from democratic ideals.
Although it’s not the money that’s the main problem, when I think about what the Adscam money could have provided in real services to real people I do get a bit upset. For example, did you know that Canada Customs agents on the St. Lawrence River have no boats to patrol a crucial border region? The poor saps have to rent boats just like the rest of us. So much for controlling drugs, firearms, and tobacco smuggling into Canada. But I digress.
The important consideration? Corruption strikes at the very heart of a decent and just society. If citizens believe that public institutions are rife with corruption, Canadians will become corrupt themselves, as in, “Hey if everybody does it, then I’d better, too, in self-defence.” Even worse, honest citizens will become cynical and disengage from the political process, thereby leaving the field wide open by default to even more corruption.
Widespread and pervasive corruption creates institutions that become increasingly arbitrary and hence unfair. Canadians have a right to demand fairness from their public institutions. In fact “fairness” can be equated with “justice,” which in turn can be equated with democracy itself. Wasn’t it Pierre Elliot Trudeau who campaigned once on the slogan, “The Just Society?” Whether it’s fighting a traffic ticket in court, or competing for services and support from governments, or applying for government jobs, or requesting admission to post-secondary institutions, or receiving a fair hearing over a grievance, we need to be assured that cases and issues will be decided on their merits through open and transparent processes.
We should not expect to get our way every time; that’s simply impossible. But if at the end of a fair process, a decision is rendered, so be it. Even if it’s a political decision, that’s okay. Politics can be a messy business, but it’s the only way for a democracy to grapple with the great issues of the day. After all, a person or group always retains the right to throw the rascals out at the next election and try to get a legislative decision reversed.
A prime example is the firearms registry fiasco which has so infuriated Canadians. Firearms owners by and large complied with this bad law, arrived at, after all, through a long and exhaustive democratic process. But you can bet your bottom dollar that these folks will be very active in the upcoming election. That’s as it should be.
But corrupt processes result in corrupt decisions which in turn drain the lifeblood from what has been termed civil society. What’s the point of working hard for a cause or for your community if you know that the ultimate decision is based more on bribery and influence-peddling than on a fair and open process? The weariness engendered by corruption usually morphs into bitterness and disengagement. How often have you heard someone observe, “I probably won’t even vote since they’re all corrupt!”
I take a completely different view. I still have a high regard for people who let their names stand for political office. They are not all corrupt, not by a long shot. In fact we have sterling examples of honesty and forthrightness in elected officials right here in Manitoba, people like the Conservative’s Vic Toews, the NDP’s Bill Blaikie, and the Liberal’s Dr. Jon Gerrard, to name a few. There are many more.
So for the sakes of these good people and others like them, corruption should energize more people to ramp up their involvement with the political process in order to rid the system of this cancer. By taking the view that “they are all corrupt,” you actually play into the hands of the corrupted. If “they are all corrupt,” then why should anybody work to root it out? This cynical view provides political cover to the corrupted, since it means you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. Corruption therefore gets further entrenched in Canada’s increasingly fragile democracy.
So get involved, fight corruption, and demand the highest standards. You deserve that.
And remember what Pericles said in 400 BC: “Those who do not take an interest in politics will be ruled by those who do.” You have been warned.
Robert Sopuck, Senior Fellow
is a modern environmentalst whose interests include solving environmental problems without reducing human freedom. He is a natural resource policy consultant with a special interest in rural issues who lives and works at Lake Audy, Manitoba. He received his B.Sc. from the University of Manitoba and Masters from Cornell University. His first career was in fisheries management. He later coordinated the sustainable development initiative for the province of Manitoba and was on the Canadian delegation to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He was Manitoba's observer on the Board of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. In October 2007 he was appointed to the federal government's National Round Table on the Environment and Economy.