Because it works
One of my first reporting projects in Ottawa, more than 20 years ago, was an access-to-information request on where skills-training dollars were spent by Brian Mulroney's Conservative government. The government turned over computer printouts -- pages and pages of them, on each individual grant. And line by line, back in the old Globe library, I went through the job contracts and counted -- an amazing amount of "skills development" money was financing low-skill service labour in donut shops, hardware stores, etc.
When I was ready to write about this dubious spending to enhance skills in the Canadian labour market, I approached an opposition politician, who said he absolutely would NOT condemn the dollars spent. "Every time one of those grants comes to my riding, I get to go down to the donut shop and hand over the cheque, and when an election rolls around, I get the credit," he said, bluntly. "That's our job -- to bring dollars to the riding."
Being young and idealistic then, I was somewhat taken aback by the brazen cynicism. I also wondered: "Who the heck casts their vote on how much money goes to the donut shop in town?"
Today, though, it's conventional wisdom, but wisdom worth questioning when we read this bombshell leak from the forthcoming Auditor-General's report. Apparently the Conservative government may have bypassed Parliament and senior civil servants to dole out millions and millions of dollars in things such as bunny trails, parks and landscaping in Muskoka. Before we get all caught up in the process issue -- ie., what the government did, don't you think we should also be asking why?
The cynical answer is: Because it works. No politician would take this risk for the sheer kick of it. Obviously there was some thought that pouring this much money into Muskoka would bring political benefit over and above the potential criticism.
And that takes me back to the question that baffled me when I was 28 years old and new to this business. Do people really base their vote on something that crass? Booty or loot for the riding? If that's the case, we might want to demand better of ourselves, as voters, as well as the politicians. Is your vote really cheap enough to be purchased in exchange for some landscaping?