For the past couple of months, Canadians have been inundated with stories, commentary and parliamentary debate about corruption -- as in the sponsorship scandal. It is unfortunate that the same amount of attention is not paid to a kind of corruption that is much more serious, and has a far larger impact on far more people. I am speaking here of the corruption of the role of government, often at the behest of the country’s -- and the world’s -- largest corporations. This is not to say that the sponsorship scandal should be ignored or is unimportant. But on the grand scale of things the sponsorship scandal is a side-show of Lilliputian proportions The people involved, the usual bottom-feeders of power politics, don’t deserve the attention they’re getting. The Liberal government has a lot more to answer for when it comes to political corruption.
How do we compare this sordid, run-of-the-mill corruption to the corruption of actual democratic governance? The Oxford dictionary offers these helpful definitions with which we can get a start: decomposition; moral deterioration; perversion of its original state.
What is it if not corrupt -- that is, indicative of moral deterioration -- that our federal government would deliberately deny a visa to Africa’s Dr. Tewolde Egziabher one of the world’s foremost scientists in the field of bio-safety, in order to prevent him attending a UN conference in Montreal? This crude move against Tewolde (eventually reversed) because he opposes Canada’s position – on behalf of corporations -- on commercialization of GMO foods, is a violation of the principles Canada agreed to when Montreal was made the centre for the Secretariat for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal. It is also evidence of corruption at the highest levels of the Liberal government.
What is it if not corrupt -- as in a perversion of its original state -- that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which in its original form was mandated to protect Canadians from unsafe food products, now has a mandate that trumps this important goal. The CFIA now must promote the export of Canadian food products, again at the behest of industry. This institutionalized conflict of interest has played out just as you might expect. When Shiv Chopra, Margaret S. Haydon, and Gérard Lambert, scientists in the veterinary drugs directorate, who for years had dedicated themselves to protecting Canadians, tried to do their job they were harassed, threatened and eventually fired for it. Is it not corruption of the very essence of democracy when the federal government can charge five Muslim men using “security certificates” which allow for the men’s indefinite detention on secret evidence though no charges have been laid? That when trials do take place, neither the detainees nor their lawyers are allowed to see the evidence and if convicted they can be deported -- even though they may face even more unfair imprisonment, torture or death? This assault on civil liberties adds nothing to Canada’s security. It is a perversion of the rule of law; it is the corruption of our democratic values and institutions.
What is it when Canada sends delegates to a conference examining the safety of so-called terminator seeds with a secret agenda to try to pass a resolution that would allow for the corporate commercialization of this horrible technology? Or when Canada colludes with the United States in a virtual coup against the democratically elected President Aristide of Haiti in clear violation of UN principles? Or when Canada’s own trade officials, unbeknownst to Canadians, and in concert with giant service corporations, negotiate away our domestic regulatory authority at the WTO?
It is the dictionary definition of corruption: a perversion of the original state of democratic governance, the moral deterioration of our democracy.
Conservatives’ narrow focus
And these are just the most egregious examples.
Canadians in large majorities have said for years they want the federal government to protect the environment yet recent reports suggests we have amongst the worst records of any country in the developed world.
Canadians say they want poverty dealt with, but according to National Council of Welfare, our welfare system is “an utter disaster” with the federal government sharing much of the blame.
These citizen demands represent Canadians’ core beliefs about the proper role of government. For over twelve years, Paul Martin and the Liberal government have deliberately and systematically corrupted that role.
There is little doubt that there is corruption in the Liberal government. But it is important to judge which kind of corruption is more damaging to the public good.
In this context it is instructive to examine how the two opposition parties in English Canada have judged political corruption. Stephen Harper and the Conservatives tried to force an election on Canadians based on the sponsorship corruption. Partly as a result they are in a popularity free fall.
The NDP concentrated on the more substantive corruption of democracy and forced Paul Martin to listen to the people. For their trouble they are rising in the polls.
The polls also say that the sponsorship scandal is dropping down the list of concerns -- replaced by traditional issues such as health care, child poverty and the environment. Canadians have got it right.
Murray Dobbin's 'State of the Nation' column appears twice monthly on The Tyee.