Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as Santanya’s oft-repeated quote goes. We remember the quote, but we always seem to forget the message. How else to explain the Conservative supporters who this week insisted Canadians don’t care about ethical transgressions, when in fact their party came to power a little over five years ago riding a wave of public anger over a Liberal government long in power guilty of a range of ethical violations.
I doubt they’ve really forgotten such recent and pivotal history though; the “no one cares” line is more likely a combination of weak spin and wishful thinking. When they say Canadians don’t care, what they’re really betting on is the apathy of Canadians. They’re betting Canadians can’t be bothered to lift their heads out of their day-to-day long enough to muster up the energy to care about the arrogance of a party that rebrands the people’s government as The Harper Government, that deliberately misleads parliament, that withholds important information from the public, deliberately flouts campaign finance laws, and punts watchdogs and opponents with impunity. They’re betting that as long as people are worried about their jobs, and they’re seen as capable managers of the economy, Canadians will only care about themselves.
It’s a very cynical bet for the Conservatives to make; but this is a government not unaccustomed to cynical bets. And like often happens to a party in government, although it usually takes longer, they’ve come to believe in their own infallibility, and that what is today shall always be. That’s a dangerous trap to fall into, but it’s a risk of life inside the bubble. Be chauffeured around town with a team of staff kissing your ass long enough and you start to believe it’s your due.
It’s not that they haven’t had reason to be a little overly confident. Sure, there have been speed bumps: the public anger over prorogation surprised them, although it later passed. They nearly lost power to the coalition. But by and large, they’ve been able to skate through a long list of foul-ups and ethical and moral lapses. They’ve made it through, though, thanks primarily to a weak opposition unable to present a viable alternative government. People can be upset but if they dislike their other choices even more, they’re less likely to jump.
We also learn from history that, while Canadians care about ethical violations, ethics alone aren’t enough to defeat a government. While sponsorship helped propel the Conservatives into power, sponsorship alone didn't do it. Remember, it didn’t suddenly appear as an issue out of the blue. It percolated for years. It was well known in 2004 when, although reduced to a minority, Canadians still elected a Liberal government under Paul Martin.
The ethics issue would continue to percolate, but Canadians still weren’t sold on Stephen Harper. As Joe Clark remarked, better the (Liberal) devil you know. In 2005/06, the Conservatives surprised observers by running the first half of their campaign not on sponsorship and ethics, but on policy and putting a friendlier face on Harper. Later in the campaign they’d add the ethics broadside, coupled with the accountability package. And still, the Liberals led in the polls until the RCMP income trusts intervention helped tip the balance. With Harper having positioned himself as a credible enough alternative with enough voters, they were able to capitalize and win a minority.
So, do Canadians care about ethical issues? They absolutely do. But they’re also pragmatic. They’re willing to punish arrogance and ethical violations, but they need to have a comfortable alternative if they’re going to do so. Otherwise, it’s better the devil you know.
And that goes back to the real nucleus of the Conservative strategy: the millions of dollars in scorched-earth advertising to negatively define successive Liberal leaders. If they can poison the alternatives in the minds of Canadians, they’re less likely to be punished for their ethical sins. With no alternative, they bet apathy and pragmatism will win out again.
So for me, the question in the next campaign isn't do Canadians care about ethics violations or not. It’s will the opposition parties be able to give Canadians the chance to prove they care or not. Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party need to provide Canadians with a vision for the country, and a plan for governing that speaks to the every-day concerns of the average person who just wants to make a good living, live a healthy life, and give their kids a good start.
If we can provide that compelling alternative, then we’ll see just how much Canadians care about ethics. Unlike the Conservatives I’m going to bet that Canadians do care. But we need to give them the chance to prove it.