Thursday, 22 March 2012

Contextualizing Robo-Call: Look back, way back...

Where does ‘robo-call’ fit into the history of Canadian political scandal?

If it is true that Conservative party functionaries sought to alter election results in one or more ridings by discouraging some opposition supporters from voting, then this would make for a relatively new kind of historical scandal. Why do I say this?

Historically, political scandals in this country come in two flavours: flavour a) incompetence and flavour b) corruption

Questions of incompetence have usually dogged individuals as in the recent case of Maxime Bernier. When Bernier left official documents in the keeping of his girlfriend, who herself had links to the Hells Angels, critics complained that he couldn’t be trusted to do his job properly. This was a small scale version of what we have seen many times before: the tuna-gate scandal in 1985  when large quantities of tainted tuna were allowed to be put on sale with the Minister fully knowing of the dangers; the Munsinger affair of the early 1960s in which two Conservative cabinet ministers had relations with Gerda Munsinger, a German national who the RCMP believed might have had ties with the Communists. The issue was about the competent performance of one’s job – with a splash of sex to make it more titillating.

The second type of scandal involves corruption and these have usually been about money.

Perhaps the most outstanding example of this kind of scandal broke into the public eye in 1926 when it was revealed that the federal Customs Department, under the corrupt gaze of Liberal Minister, Jacques Bureau, had been colluding with smugglers to run liquor back and forth across the Canada. In other instances, the corruption has been tied to party financing. When John A Macdonald’s Conservatives accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Hugh Allan in the 1873 election, many were sceptical that the contributions were not about buying his way into heading up the consortium to build the new railway across Canada.

The robo-call scandal doesn’t neatly fit into either of these kinds of categories. If true, it is evidence of corruption, but not in the usual kind of way. No one is getting rich off of this – not directly. It isn’t about incompetence either.

Certainly we’ve seen plenty of other examples of corruption that were just as egregious. But, and here is where conservative party commentators are wrong, we haven’t seen this kind of corruption before – at least as a scandal that has gained national attention.

The robo-call affair actually hearkens back to a much older style of politics that we thought we were well done with. In the 19th century, before the secret-ballot, political parties engaged in all sorts of dirty tricks to influence the results on election day. Casting a ballot could be a rowdy, rough affair and the ability of political parties to buy alcohol for their friends, and to have toughs on hand at polling stations mattered. (It was one of the arguments against granting women the franchise.)

I know the Conservatives are resurrecting a bit of our past in returning the Royal to the Royal Navy. But do they really want to go back this far in time – to these kinds of elections? It is hardly an ideal for democracy in the 21st century. 

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