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The moral authority to govern By Ira Basen,CBC.ca Reality Check Team | Dec. 22, 2005 | More Reality Check

"Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. Because of the Liberal sponsorship scandal, Paul Martin's government has lost the moral authority to govern."

The four party leaders pose for photographers before the start of the French language debate. (CP photo)

So began the opening statement of Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe in the English-language leaders' debate on Dec. 16. Duceppe's declaration was hardly new. Ever since the Gomery inquiry began peeling back the layers of corruption in the sponsorship scandal, opposition politicians, columnists and pundits have all echoed the refrain that the Liberals had lost "the moral authority to govern."

The phrase has become so much a part of the Canadian political lexicon that few have stopped to consider what it actually means. In a democracy, the authority to govern ultimately resides with the people and the Constitution. If you can command the confidence of the voter, if you have not been found guilty of criminal conduct, you presumably have the authority to govern. But the "moral authority" to govern suggests that there may be a higher power that trumps both the law and the people's right to determine who is fit to lead.

Many Christians would argue that is the case. The Bible declares that "thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness," and they should become rulers. Former Reform party leader Preston Manning was convinced politicians should be accountable to a higher power. In his memoirs, he decried "the low level of spirituality and sensitivity to the �good and evil' dimensions of public policy."

During his political career, Manning was quick to play the "moral authority" card. He believed that had the "yes" side won the Quebec referendum in 1995, the Chretien government would have "lost its moral authority to govern" and would have had to resign. And in the leaders' debate during the 1997 election, he told Jean Charest that the Conservative leader had "no moral authority to discuss social security" because Charest had not renounced his lucrative MP's pension.

But Manning was hardly the first politician to invoke the phrase. Its roots go back to the earliest political thinkers. It has been used worldwide wherever corruption has reared its ugly head. The governor of the Mexican province of Tabasco was told that he had lost the moral authority to govern in 1996 when he was accused of illegally pocketing $4.5 million from an international fugitive. And the prime minister of India was told the same thing in 1993 when he was accused of bribing MPs to support his government.

And then there's Bill. In light of the sex scandals and other moral and legal lapses that surrounded President Clinton, did he ever lose his moral authority to govern? Most of his opponents certainly thought so. Not surprisingly, the president disagreed. When asked in 1998 whether he felt he still had the moral authority to govern, Clinton replied, somewhat enigmatically, "in my view, that is something that you have to demonstrate every day. My opinion is not as important as the opinion of others. What is important is that I do my job."

And indeed, Clinton's example demonstrates how murky the waters around the moral authority to govern can get. In the "opinion of others," namely the American people, he clearly did not lose his authority. Polls consistently showed him to be the most popular politician in the land. In 1999, he easily beat the Pope in a Gallup poll that asked Americans to name their "most admired" man.

Moral authority can be a slippery slope. In 1999, when B.C. Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell moved a motion of no-confidence in the government of NDP Premier Glen Clark, he proclaimed "the NDP has lost all moral authority to govern," because of various scandals plaguing Clark's government. Three years later, when Campbell pleaded guilty to drunk driving in Hawaii, NDP Leader Joy MacPhail turned the tables on him. "The premier's moral authority to govern has been severely diminished, if not lost altogether," she declared.

In a 1999 column, Andrew Coyne wondered whether the scandals, and the fact that the B.C. NDP was trailing the Liberals by 40 points in public opinion polls, meant the Clark government still had "the moral authority" to negotiate a self-government treaty with the Nisga'a Indians. But does popularity matter when it comes to morality? When Brian Mulroney was governing with approval ratings that approached single digits, did he lose his moral authority to pass the GST?

Ultimately, the question may come down to this: if Martin's Liberals are re-elected, does that mean their "moral authority" has been restored, despite the sponsorship scandal? If so, what does that tell us about the validity of the claim in the first place? Are we really talking about morality, or political legitimacy? In the end, the loss of moral authority is an easy charge for a politician to make, but much harder to define. In this election, as in all elections, the only authority that really matters will come from the ballot box.

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