Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Corruption and Politics

Corruption and Politics

So, the Conservatives are involved in an election scandal. For a great many Canadians, this is hardly shocking. Canadians, we know, are amazingly skeptical about their political leaders and believe they are all corrupt. I’ve argued against this position in this blog on at least a couple of occasions. I doubt, too, that Conservative electoral shenanigans will come as any surprise to Liberals, New Democrats, or Bloquistes because they are predisposed to believe that there must be some reason – other than themselves – that the Conservatives won the last federal election and they lost.

Even more seasoned observers are likely far from surprised. The Conservatives had been playing fast and loose with the Elections Act – and likely violating it – in the past. The fact that they appear to have stepped over the line in a serious way this time, was just one more step in their no holds barred approach to winning elections (about which I’ve also blogged in the past).

For me, this corruption raises a different issue and one that I have only really begun to consider. I’ve argued that people vote for specific political parties (and support those parties) because, generally, they agree with what the party stands for: its vision of Canada. I know that people don’t always vote for a specific party out of a commitment to it, but perhaps 95% of those Canadians who vote do.

For me, what this latest scandal indicates is that I might need to take corruption more seriously as an aspect of political life in Canada. I will confess that I don’t want to. I’d like to treat Canadian public life with a high degree of dignity and, I suppose by disposition, I prefer to treat it philosophically: to discuss visions and platforms and policies. Sure, I argued, there was corruption but it was not grave and it did not – expecting significant scandals – play a role in the historical processes that define Canada. Heck, corruption is just not the kind of things I can work in easily to a lecture on a Conservative historic bloc or civic nationalism.

Was I wrong? So, where does electoral corruption fit into this discussion? I have no hard and fast ideas but it appears that I need to take corruption more seriously. The Tory historic bloc, for instance, is being created, in part, on the back of the First Past the Post electoral system (single member plurality) that transforms pluralities into majorities. This same system upheld the long Liberal/civic nationalist government and the class, social, and economic forces it represented. It is hardly surprising that Conservative supporters, looking to build their own historic bloc, would abandon the democracy promoted by the Reform Party back in the 1980s as ineffective in so doing. After all, the neo-liberal economic policies and social conservatism represented by the Conservative Party are not about democracy. They are about specific policies (tough on crime, opposition to women’s rights, retrenchment of the welfare state), whether these are democratic or not. Canadian historic blocs, then, are built gratis the First Past the Post system that alleviates the need to win majority support.

The Conservatives, it seems, have taken this built in systemic bias one step further. Perhaps the Liberals did before them, as well, but I have some other thoughts on that issue that I’ll get to sometime. It appears that the Conservatives decided that even with this built in bias, even with their huge electoral war chest, and even with disorganized opposition parties, that they could not win a general election or at least could not garner a majority in Parliament.

This would have left them vulnerable and likely would have derailed key elements of their vision of the country. It is unlikely that their re-militarization of Canada could have proceeded at the same pace. Their commitment to increasing incarceration would have died on the order paper. And the cuts to the welfare state that are coming down the tubes would have had to have been negotiated with political parties committed to the welfare state. In other words, the full realization of Conservative policy needed a majority and that majority was not to be found even with all the advantages the Conservatives had. In this situation, they turned to the only thing they had left: dirty tricks.

The key question here is this: is corruption an inherent element of building and sustaining an historic bloc? If you want to use more a more liberal language, a governing political coalition? If one were more leftist, one might ask the question this way: does one need corruption to build and maintain a capitalist historic bloc since this historic bloc cannot win majority (or, unconditional) support?

I have no easy answer to this question but I am starting to think that I, at least, need to take corruption more seriously. I don’t think we should fall into a “one lot is as bad as the next” or “all politicians are corrupt” type of discourse. I think what we need to do is to interrogate the rise and maintenance of governing coalitions (historic blocs) to find out what role corruption has played in them. I suspect, then, that when this interrogation is done, I might discover that corruption is an inherent element of politics in a Canada precisely because it is an effective tool to building and maintaining an historic bloc. however distasteful it might be to those of us who want to talk politics as policy and vision, we might need to look at corruption as a technology of power.

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