The Age of Suspicion
From The National, Dec. 13, 2005
Reporter: Brian Stewart
Canadians have less trust in politicians than ever before.
A CBC-Environics poll found that the level of distrust in Canadian politics is at the highest level ever recorded. Call it an age of suspicion – it's a national cynicism that goes well beyond politics.
"It is a very visceral thing for people in that it's not just towards politicians," says John Dallas Costa, director of the Centre for Ethical Orientation.
"All the institutions that have traditionally been reservoirs of trust-making for society, all of them have had some kind of crisis that has led us to wonder, are they really representing the values that we thought that they were? Promises aren't kept. Promises are consistently broken, and that over a period of time, there's a real wearing down of our confidence in each other. In fact, we are in a time of high suspicion."
It's amazing how much trust has faded. Like a passing illusion, a generation ago, at least half of us trusted Parliament. Now scarcely any of us do, about one in 10. Polls report most of us distrust all politicians, say they're all the same. Seventy-three per cent of us no longer even assume leaders will honour commitments. We are irritable and expect little.
"My name is Gordon Oliver from Toronto. I think it's the nature of the beast. I think that all levels of government have a problem with ethics, people who don't live up to the words they put out. I think that all politicians basically just campaign just to get in, and there is no sincerity in the promises that they make to the voters. And I find, even for myself in business, just dealing with companies, it's very difficult to find those that are really ethical and actually deliver what they promise to and what you pay for."
So troubled are we in a distrusting age of scandals, the subject "ethics" is a boom industry in universities, business and the media. John Dalla Costa is an internationally renowned ethicist who warns loss of trust could even destroy ties that bind us.
JOHN DALLA COSTA (DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR ETHICAL ORIENTATION): "I think if it we study it, the early 1990s are a period where our corporations began a process of lean and mean re-engineering. We made meanness a virtue," Dalla Costa says, "And in the mid-90s, both federal and provincial governments adopted very much the same strategy, saying, 'Get the fiscal house in order. Lean and mean drives the priorities of our programs.' But unfortunately, what the meanness has done is eroded many of the things that bonded us together, that held us together, and it really narrowed or lowered our horizons for what's possible."
Ironically, all levels of government have moved in recent years to tighten up oversight. More powers for auditors general, new integrity standards, transparency rules and ethics counsellors. This seems not to have inspired more trust, but rather even more suspicion. Why isn't this increasing confidence? It seems to be having, if anything, an adverse effect.
Dalla Costa says: "When there's a scandal, politicians or corporate leaders immediately go to the toolkit, the crisis management toolkit, and it says, 'Okay, put in an ethics code, introduce an integrity officer and there, we've done it, we've resolved the issue.' What Canadians have said to us is, 'Look, the office itself is suspect. This tactic of having ethics codes, everybody's got them. They don't mean anything. What do the words actually mean in the day-to-day behaviours?' I think there is an important unspoken diminishment, though, that we look at our politicians and we say we can't trust them, but that makes it too easy for us as Canadians to actually not ask ourselves, what do we want and what are we doing about it? So, in fact, the numbness that we have for not trusting the leadership has also numbed us to what is morally important in society, and we walk that fine line as voters that we choose the programs we want, and if they serve us, that's what gets our support, and if not, we walk away. So in a sense, we are all participating in that breaking apart of trust."
So distrust can lead to a kind of selfishness in politics or just a lack of caring in the wider good. Are we at a stage now where politicians, in fact, should be turning around and demanding more of us, something of us? The Kennedy model?
"I think that that's very much what hasn't been happening and what needs to happen is that we need visions that ask us as Canadians, if this is what we stand for and if this is what we can project to the world, then what is it going to cost us? What are we going to have to do? What contributions will we have to make as individuals to make that possibility come true? So I think the politicians basically treat voters like consumers. Give them products, give them projects that will satisfy them. None of them are giving visions that say animate hope, animate possibility, get people to say, 'Yes, this is what Canada can do uniquely in the world stage today, and if we do this, this is what will give pride to future generations,'" Dalla Costa says.
"My name is James Grunel, and I live in the Vancouver area. What I'm looking for in our leadership are people who are able to give us a vision of where they want to take the country, people who are passionate about that vision. Having a vision and a passion for a vision can be politically risky for the individual themselves, but it's never politically risky for the country, and if we have leaders who have country first and their own careers secondary to that, then I think we have a country that's going to go somewhere."
Focus groups find an interesting pattern. Canadians do recognize past iconic monuments of national vision: Health care, bilingualism, peacekeeping missions. But these seem increasingly as the vision of past decades. What great challenges now, they ask. What's curious, though, probably in every political war room in the country, there are consultants saying we have to capture the vision thing, we have to come out with something that will grab the imagination of the country, but why can't politicians do it, then?
"Well, a lot of this analysis attempts to define vision by connecting dots of research," Dalla Costa says. "'Let's get a bunch of facts together, and if we add them all together, we'll end up with a package that's visionary.'" That's not the way vision operates throughout history. Usually, vision has something quite irrational to it. It has some leap or some aspiration that if you tried to figure out how to get there, it wouldn't make sense. And I suspect when national health care was talked about, that was exactly, 'This doesn't make sense. We'll never be able to put it in place, you know, it's not going to work.' But somehow the will, because it was the right thing to do, superseded the practicality that said it couldn't be done."
We talk about big projects, but what exactly do you mean? Give us some tangible examples we should think of?
"Doing this global ethics work, I've had the opportunity to work with people down at the United Nations, and they consider the Canadian diplomatic core an elite, one of the real cream operations in the world." Dalla Costa says. "But when we look at where the initiatives for global problem-solving have come, they haven't come from Canadians in the last little while. We have the Norwegians, a much smaller country, same sort of northern values that we aspire to, out there doing very aggressive diplomacy in the Middle East, coming up with the Oslo accords, continuing to have a day-to-day impact on how that very difficult issue resolves itself. For us, it's like we have this diplomatic Ferrari, but it's locked in the garage. We're actually not used to get our Canadian values and ideas out there."
Do you think we should forget the fear of failure? You have to overcome nationally this fear, "Well, it may not work out."
"I think what we've learned from a trust perspective is that people will forgive the failure if we are learning lessons and trying things that are the right thing to do," Dalla Costa says. "What they won't forgive is evading the right thing to do, for not taking the risk, for not wanting to fail."