Wednesday, 29 February 2012

A 'robo-call' to Mackenzie King

If you're going to have a scandal, it doesn't hurt to give it a title resembling an 80s movie about a cyborg cop.

That's one thing the current robo-call scandal has going for it.

What are we to make of the suggestions that Conservative party campaign workers attempted to mislead some opposition supporters into believing that their polling stations had changed? It would seem that the hope was that enough would be frustrated by their experience and not ultimately vote. If true, this is serious.

Aside from the truth or not of the allegations, there are some history lessons here for the way the issue is being talked about in the media.

I'm struck by how so much of the discussion on CBC's The Current this morning focused on the bizarre question of whether Harper knew about it or not - as if this is what the whole issue depends upon. It resembles so much the same kinds of questions that swirled around Mackenzie King in the Beauharnois scandal. In that case, King and the Liberals were acccused of taking bribes in the form of massive campaign contributions in exchange for giving a company (The Beauharnois Light, Heat and Power Company) the right to divert part of the St Lawrence river through one of its power generating stations.

As the scandal came to light, and retrospectively in the work of historians, the emphasis has been on whether or not King personally knew about any of the moneys that were given to the party. There was also the matter of one of the company executives paying for a holiday that King took to Bermuda.

Mackenzie King\
 (source: Library and Archives Canada, C-027645)

This kind of scandal goes along with other debates about money that was raised to support King - the large trust fund that was put together by the Salada Tea baron Philip Larkin and other wealthy businessmen to refurbish King's home after he became prime minister, and similar donations to King by his friend John D Rockefeller.

I've always found the search for what would seem to be the smoking gun - evidence that King himself knew about this and directly did something for such folk in response - to be a red herring. It's not at all surprising that King claimed not to know about these things - and claimed that he would never have been influenced by such considerations. Of course he would say that. And King could be incredibly self-deluding; he may even, as his official biographer H Blair Neatby thinks, have believed it.

But we shouldn't.

It is the same thing as advertising. Many will deny being influenced by ads. Yet companies pay for advertising because it works. The same goes for political influence and corruption. These wealthy individuals contributed to the Liberal party and to King's personal trustfunds because they thought there was something in it for them.

Which brings us back to Harper and the robo-call scandal.  Whether or not Harper 'knew' about it (ie can be shown via documentation that he knew) isn't the most important part of the story. If it is true that conservative campaign workers did try to subvert the results of the election, the whole ship ought to go down, including its captain. Unless Stephen Harper is going to be like that Italian cruise ship captain Francesco Schettino and abandon ship ahead of the passengers.

It's the climate of action that matters. Did the party accept folks into its fold who broke the law? Has Harper created a climate within the party that not only allows for, but even encourages, this kind of bullying, and potentially illegal behaviour?

The answer has to lean towards yes at this point. They certainly did so over the 'in-and-out' scandal, ultimately pleading guilty to overspending in the 2006 election but nonetheless continuously denying publicly that they had done anything wrong. It looks so far like the same tactics are being used here. Deny, deflect, change the conversation, and hope that no one cares.

We shall see what happens and if this time will be different...

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