Jackson Doughart
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The optics of political scandal
In the public eye, the biggest corruption is not always the worst.

Prince Arthur Herald, 21 August 2013

Logic would suggest that the more egregious an act of public misconduct, the worse one’s reputation ought to be effected, and the greater the outcry ought to be. To make an analogy to other deeds, even the most categorical pronouncement against heinous offenses cause many to pause for complexity; the serial murderer in comparison to the homicide “of passion” are never seen as morally equal.

Yet the ability to order certain deeds in a ranking of moral repugnance requires that they both be squared into the same subject of judgment; they must be juxtaposed against the same proverbial backdrop, lest the observer be completely unable to even consider them at the same time. A serial murderer and a “crime of passion” homicide can be compared intuitively; this cannot be done for genocide, which is so far beyond the pale that it often elicits practically no sustained, active thinking by those who haven’t consciously chosen to engage in it. Even those who have chosen to engage can be as baffled by the evil involved as those who remained switched off. In some cases, our intuitions may respond more actively to the assimilable serial killer than to the unassimilable genocidaire.

In a different form, I think that this bleak illustration applies instructively to political corruption scandals. Over the last few months, the topic of the expense-reimbursement cheating by numerous senators has engendered considerable attention from Canada’s news and opinion media, which is engendered by a deep-felt public outcry. For many citizens, the related incidents confirm the utmost in cynicism about politics, and exemplify why many politicians are “fat cats” who hold office for mere personal gain and not public service. Yet when compared with previous corruptions, even the most egregious misconduct in the Senate doesn’t match up financially, so why the reaction of this degree?

To take the point further, it might seem strange that citizens would be more animated by the defrauding of $90,000 by Senator Duffy (which was seemingly veiled by the Prime Minister’s Office through Nigel Wright’s personal repayment of the “missing” monies on Duffy’s behalf) than they would be about, say, the Sponsorship Scandal, which involved several million dollars and a far more sordid enterprise than the number-fudging of which Duffy (pictured above) has been accused. Yet much of the Sponsorship Scandal outrage was manufactured, encouraged by the opposition parties as a means of discrediting the Martin Government for their own ends, and denounced by the public on what may be termed expectational grounds: many people simply sense that there are certain acts which they are supposed to deplore in order to be considered right-thinking people. One such act is misconduct involving money by public officials. But often, the feigned outrage emanating from social expectation is unsupported by any emotional investment in the pursuit of uncovering the truth and punishing the wrongdoers. In that case, people were just going through the motions.

However, the response to the the current scandal-in-progress could not be further from either artificial or manufactured. In fact, I am quite sure that the presently-constituted upper house may not survive as a popularly-legitimate institution as a result of these revelations, especially in light of the motivation that this crisis-of-confidence gives the Harper Government to distance itself from the Senate. Perhaps (and hopefully) a long-overdue reform to the home of “sober second thought” will be initiated, even if it arises from political embarrassment rather than considered principle.

The reason for this distinction in public reaction, I posit, is the amount of money involved. When a banana-republic government swindles several million dollars for the benefit of its own party and friends, the response from Joe Lunchbox will always be in some way manufactured because he doesn’t understand the value of that much money. Even when no criminal matter is hand, but where fiscal mismanagement involves the erroneous allocation of tens of millions of dollars, people are unable to identify with, or otherwise appreciate, the loss. Not so for a Senator who lifts $90,000 from the public coffers. Joe Lunchbox knows very well how much $90,000 is worth, and probably has a good idea of what he would, and could, do with such a sum. So when presented with a case such as that of Mr Duffy, the outrage produced by citizen comes from a far more organic and identifiable place, and is hence far more genuine and deep-felt.

This reality means that a comparatively less-significant event such as the present expense scandal could end up being very significant indeed when it comes to the political fate of the Conservative Party, which is largely viewed by the public as responsible for the present state of affairs, even though the misconduct here cuts across party lines. Everyone knows that Bev Oda’s glass of orange juice cost $16, even though the weight of the purchase was mathematically meaningless. Yet it may well have been the defining expense claim that led to her resigning in disgrace. In the optics of political scandal, sometimes less is more.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com