This past week we’ve seen a couple of different news stories with allegations of misspending, which were nevertheless within the rules. In this case, it was around the travel claims of certain Conservative senators, and the leak of the moving allowance that retired General Andrew Leslie claimed upon his release from the Canadian Forces. In both cases, there were no rules broken, but everyone rushed to “question their judgement,” when taxpayer money was on the line. What underlies this whole debate, however, is an ongoing and prevalent contempt for the political class.
In the wake of the Senate spending scandals, the Privy Council Office commissioned a series of polls that showed frustration with “frequent abuses” of public funds in the Upper Chamber, and that they’re fed up with “rich politicians” leading “lush lifestyles.” Sadly, that tends to be far from the reality of most politicians in this country, but by the kinds of breathless reporting that goes on about the perqs that politicians can access as though it were nothing but a smorgasbord of entitlements. It also doesn’t help that the people being polled didn’t know what the job of a senator was, which only added to their sense of frustration. Chalk up another victory for civic literacy in this country!
What becomes more galling is the way in which certain parties – particularly the NDP, but also the Reform Party before them – contribute to this atmosphere of distrust of any kind of political salary by setting up this narrative of the “fat cats in the Senate,” who supposedly live in the laps of luxury. Well, except that those same senators make about $25,000 less per year than an MP does, and that many of them were at the top of their field before they were appointed and took a substantial pay cut in order to do that kind of public service, but why mess up a good narrative?
Aside from the ongoing attempts by certain cranks to defund the Senate (as though a war between the two chambers was in any way desirable), there were further attempts this past year to try and make serving in the Senate to be an unpaid position that should be done for the public service alone, carefully avoiding answering why the MPs proposing such measures shouldn’t also be subjected to the same treatment. Completely absent from this particular stunt was the self-realization that such a scheme would mean that only the wealthiest of citizens would really be able to contribute to that kind of public service, between doing the actual work, hiring staff, and the kind of cross-country travel that it would entail. It really would make it a camber of the “rich politicians” that they so decry.
Not only has the general public been conditioned to loathe and fear taxes, and pretty much any public expenditure that doesn’t benefit them directly, we have entered into an era where the biggest danger that we face toward our political culture is no longer voter disengagement but voter contempt. When we are constantly confronted by stories about how awful politicians are, how they’re all supposedly lined up at the trough, and how any amount of money spent is too much, it’s hard not to see where our attitudes have become wholly poisoned. Not only should politicians or public servants be forced to work for a pittance – if anything at all – then they should also be forced to wear sackcloth and ashes as penance for their decision to enter into public service. After all, who but the most venal among us would want to do such work?
We need to ask ourselves at what point we draw the line on the contempt that we show for public service. After all, if people are going to be hounded and harassed even when they do follow the rules – to the point that the head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation took the classy route of saying that General Leslie dishonoured his ancestors and compared him to Mike Duffy, even though he didn’t actually do anything wrong with his moving expense claim – why should they even bother? There are certainly other things that they could be doing without the constant scorn or aggravation of a myopic populist mob who believe that they are the only people who are entitled to their entitlements and that every single other person is on the take.
While the focus becomes so much on how much our public officials earn, there is very little discussion of the sacrifice that goes into it. For many it meant a pay cut from a career, and the loss of any kind of job security. For others, it’s the loss of any kind of personal time, taking on what has become a 24/7 kind of job where there really are no breaks, as they are constantly engaged with their constituents and attending as many functions in their riding as possible. It’s a life spent on airplanes flying back and forth across the country. There is a higher incidence of marital breakdown because of the stress of distance and of the responsibilities of office. For others, like Senators, it means delaying retirement for a decade, which again impacts their families tremendously.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t report on financial malfeasance when it happens, but we should perhaps temper the urge to declare every dollar spend as potentially broken rules (even when they’re not) or as poor judgement when matters were beyond their control. But the glee with which some of the reporting has happened in the past few weeks has seen facts omitted for the sake of salaciousness, and that contributes to the atmosphere of contempt, and it winds up salting the earth after the crops have all been razed. If we want to attract the right kind of people into politics, perhaps we need to temper some of that bloodlust and rethink our narratives, so that everyone isn’t living in constant fear of a legitimate expense claim, distracting from the real issues we’re facing.
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