Inside the News with Peter Mansbridge

Last Updated: Aug 8, 2013 11:16 AM ET

Breeding cynicism

Senator Mike Duffy leaves a meeting of the Senate Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration committee on Parliament Hill. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

By Mark Bulgutch and Peter Mansbridge

I confess. A political scandal is a juicy news story and it energizes a newsroom. Chasing down new angles, uncovering more dirt, milking every revelation. Who needs adrenaline when you have that for fuel every day?

But in my heart I know that political scandal is profoundly harmful to the country. Scandal breeds cynicism about the basic fairness of our democracy. And that is crippling.

There's no science in talking to cab drivers, but I always do it when I'm in a province having an election. I ask them how they're going to vote. Way too often they tell me they aren't going to vote. When I ask them why I usually get something like, "It makes no difference. They're all crooks."

I try to persuade them that every vote counts. I tell them which party is in power does make a difference. I argue that most politicians are actually hard working women and men who really do want to make life better for their community.

They laugh at me. And more and more Canadians have decided not to vote in elections. In B.C.'s election this month the turnout was about 48%. Ontario's turnout in the last election was also below 50%. Even in PEI, where the turnout was about 76% in 2011, that was down from 84% four years earlier.

I find it depressing. But frankly it's getting harder to defend politicians.

It's still true, I think, that the overwhelming majority are honest and faithful to the citizens who they serve. But what's with the rest? Is it really that hard to conduct yourself with honour? I'm disappointed that we need a mountain of rules and codes of conduct and ethical guidelines for our politicians. Don't we know right from wrong without a forensic audit?

Can you really be confused about accepting an allowance for living away from home, when you don't live away from home?

When a construction company offers a bribe, how long should it take to say no? Is that not a black and white issue? There's no shade of gray.

When you hire the advertising company that offers to kick back some of the government money it gets to your political party, is there a moral quandary about the propriety of that action?

The Prime Minister says, "Anyone who wants to use public office for their own benefit should make other plans." Too bad he actually has to say that out loud.

Look, none of us is perfect. If we all drove at the speed limit, obeyed all the traffic laws, drove sober, and parked legally, our police forces could concentrate on more serious crimes.

If every Canadian paid all the taxes they're supposed to, the Canada Revenue Agency wouldn't be saying it can't collect about $29 billion in taxes it is owed.

Still, politicians engaging in unsavoury shenanigans are in a special category.

Canada spends billions of dollars every year to defend the country. The money goes to the military, to border security, and to intelligence agencies. The idea is to prevent physical attacks. But the larger purpose is to defend what Canada stands for. We are a democracy. But if the average citizen no longer believes that our system of government is worth defending, we enter a very dangerous area, at least as dangerous as a physical attack. Scandals contribute to just that kind of cynicism. Which is why I have nothing but disdain for politicians who act with greedy self-interest.

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