Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Journalists are not historians

... and vice versa, I suppose.

Lawrence Martin attempts to put the Harper Conservatives into the context of the history of politcal scandal in his column this morning. According to Martin, the rot started about thirty years ago, at the end of the Trudeau era, with the patronage appointments that Trudeau's successor, John Turner, felt obliged to defend to his own detriment in his famous TV debate with Mulrony ('You had an option, sir!' - see it here).

The many scandals of the Mulroney and Chretien era followed, each prime minister ultimately paying the price (or the party paying the price at any rate). Martin implies that the Harper conservatives don't seem to have learned the lesson. You can let one go, even several, but ultimately these things catch up to you. On this he is probably right.
Harperland by Lawrence Martin
Now Martin is a great journalist. His book, Harperland, does a great job of gathering together the various bits of information on Harper that make the case for him as a control-freak who absolutely loathes the Liberal party. The account is unbalanced, but it's hard not to think that much of what Martin says in this book won't stick with Harper for many years to come.

But as a historian I think he's well off base in assuming that the scandals really started about 30 years ago and only got worse. He talks about Pearson having scandals but being basically a decent man, etc. He's not off base on this either. Pearson was no doubt a decent man; but that's not the point.

What is missing here is the sense that what counts as a scandal has changed. The culture of politics, and the culture into which poltical figures emerge and are ultimately interpreted, has fundamentally changed since the 1960s. It's not that politics have become dirtier. What has really happened is that our standards have changed. We expect more. And this, to me at least, is a good thing. But it's also the kind of change that gets missed by journalists. It especially gets missed when there aren't many historians who are themselves talking about it (think here of the large abandonment of telling big political history in this country by professional historians).

An example:

One of the reasons the Liberal party used to be so well financed in its glory days in the middle of the 20th century was because of the absolutely corrupt (to our modern standards) way in which it was financed. As Reg Whitaker shows in The Government Party, Liberal bagmen used to routinely go to those businesses that won government contracts and, after the contract was awarded, suggest that perhaps the company (or its owners) might like to make a donation to the party. How about something in the range of 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 per cent of what the contract was worth?

No doubt the businessmen felt pretty generous at this point, and they coughed up the donation. I'm certain it had nothing to do with wanting to get another contract in future...

This is one of the reasons why limits on donations were brought in on individuals and corporations.

So when the Conservatives break election spending laws in the 'in-and-out' scandal, is this evidence of a more corrupt kind of politics?

Absolutely not. It is certainly evidence of corruption. And it should certainly be punished by much more than the measly fine that they did receive. But this isn't because the current crop of Conservatives are worse than those who came before. It is rather because they are doing everything they can to bend the rules, and to return us, in whatever way will give them an advantage, to the bad old days of financing political parties.

Far be it from me to defend the Conservatives. But a little bit of historical context is sometimes useful.

More on the history of political scandal to come....

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