Senate expense scandal: money or morality?
Nothing focuses the citizens' minds more than waste/misuse of money -- which is why we're seeing a large amount of attention on the controversy over Senate living expenses, and whether some senators were claiming inappropriate (if not illegal) payments from the public purse. "It's. Your. Money," the CBC solemnly announced tonight when it was previewing its story on the Senate mess.
If money is the only issue, then everyone can calm down once the "taxpayers" have the cash back in their wallets. Once again, it's reduced to another story of Canadian politics as a simple business transaction: your money, their entititlements, and so on. Government as a retail store: I'm not satisfied; I want my money back.
At the risk of committing sociology, let's ask: why aren't we (and I mean citizens, not journalists) asking some harder questions about the "root causes" surrounding that other oft-used phrase -- "lack of accountability?" Where did these senators (and only a few of them) get the idea that they could use their public, privileged positions to feather their already-comfortable nests? Harder question: is it possible they were looking to the House of Commons and the government for signals on how to get away with pretty much anything? Why aren't we up in arms about lack of accountability from the people we actually elect?
Accountability isn't simply about accounting or counting when it comes to public service. It's about recognizing that citizens -- not mere taxpayers -- might want to keep an eye on how their trust in the state is being managed, and not just their dollars.
Think back to former cabinet minister Bev Oda, and what ended her career: a $16 glass of orange juice. Think farther back, to how she misled the House of Commons about who made the decision to withdraw money from the KAIROS aid-and-advocacy organization. (Click the link. It's worth remembering.)
In the larger scheme of things, that is, if you think public trust is a bigger deal than a few dollars for overpriced orange juice, that should have been the career-ending scandal. Oda was reinstalled in her job as soon as the 2011 election was over; the election that was triggered in part by her misleading of the Commons.
Lesson learned, though. Contempt of Parliament, meh. Pay too much for a glass of juice, well now you have the public's attention. Have we lost the ability to measure our politicians' duty to us in any other terms than cold, hard cash? The Oda example is only the most vivid, too, on how we get all specific and hard-line about monetary offences and tend to shrug off matters that violate the fragile, but necessary terms of trust between the citizens and those we entrust to look out for our best interests in matters of state. Oda lied to Parliament, but what riled everyone was the money stuff.
What has happened in the Senate, the waste of money, is justifiable reason for public outrage.
But so are omnibus budget bills in the House of Commons. So are the insulting-to-intelligence "talking points" spouted by the people paid to be your representatives in Parliament. So is Question Period, where your government spends more time attacking its critics than seriously answering any queries about its business. Ditto for House of Commons' committees, rigged to make sure the ruling party gets its way.
If lack of accountability bugs you, you might want to take a glance at how your money is being spent with barely a nod in the direction of the government explaining itself to the citizens through its elected representatives. That's not just a potential waste or misuse of your money, that's an offence to the relationship between the electors and the elected.
Money is something that keeps changing hands. When it's misused, you can get it back. Trust and faith in government is a bit more precious. Once that's gone, it doesn't come back.