Resolve to remember

It may be a new year, but the taint of last year’s scandals has not gone away…

Happy New Year, everybody! Ah New Year’s…time for a fresh start, a brand new slate, beginning of new hopes and possibilities.

So anyway, getting back to last year…

Whatever your new year’s resolutions (if you’re the sort for that) I’d like you to add one to the list: let’s not let last year go. Let’s not put a fresh face to the grind, nor clear the way for a new start.

Because that’s precisely what the Conservative government wants you to do.

The Globe and Mail put it best. The scandal which dominated the tail end of 2011 – Peter Mackay’s ordering an Air Force Search and Rescue chopper to pick him up from vacation and take him to work a few months ago, and the government’s pitiful efforts to invent a plausible spin for the scandalous abuse of public funds and public safety – would, Conservatives hoped, be forgotten about over the Christmas holidays, so that they wouldn’t be forced to answer for their actions to the public conscience.

And that’s precisely what we must not let them do.

Deck the halls with sleaze and scandal

We’ve all heard the story, but let’s refresh our memories for those of us who imbibed a bit too much egg nog. Defence Minister Peter Mackay is out for a bit of chill-out fishing at a remote lodge in Newfoundland, and then needs to head to Ontario to speak at a press conference. Rather than travel like any other Canadian – be they banker, engineer, or cabinet minister – the government phoned up the Canadian Air Force and demanded he be picked up in a Search and Rescue helicopter. SAR staff realize taxiing a minister around does not sound like an appropriate or legitimate use of national SAR resources, and warn their superiors it’ll look darn bad when the news gets out. Somewhere up along the chain, superiors decide to ignore their warnings (well, he IS their boss, even if he’s acting like a spoiled child) and send out the chopper to pick up Mackay. Sure enough, word leaks out, so a story is put out that he was taking part in a scheduled training exercise. A tabloid editor couldn’t have dreamed up a better basis for scandal: somewhere out there a gossip-monger must have graduated from Santa’s naughty to nice list. And the controversy quickly raged: was it an abuse of funds and office? Does our government actually believe that picking a cabinet minister up from a fishing hole and driving him to work constitutes a ‘training exercise’ (if so, fate help us when we have a real emergency!), or were they just scrambling for a plausible cover-up to make it look like his actions weren’t as bad as they seem to be really are?

A tabloid editor couldn’t have dreamed up a better basis for scandal…

Caught in the growing web of – well, one might call it deception, but he’s stomping around threatening to sue those who question the truth of his story (with government lawyers? Why not, he’s mis-used his position this far already…), so let’s just call it ELOS (Excessive Levels of Sleaze; the military do love their acronyms) – he and his buddy the prime minister are ignoring calls for his resignation and are making threats against those who are – legitimately – questioning his actions.

As the scandal flared and grew like a forest fire encroaching upon a large city, the only respite on the horizon was the approaching Christmas season. Conservatives hoped that in the abundance of holiday cheer, frantic gift-buying, and rum’n’eggnog, Canadians would forget that one of their foremost government ministers had so debased both his position and the trust of constituents and other Canadians alike.

And our first resolution of the New Year must be to not let that happen.

A slap in the face

His actions hit home in Newfoundland and Labrador especially poignantly, and they hurt excessively deeply for two reasons. First of all, the whole incident went down here, in our own backyard. Normally that’d just make for a nice and fun bit of trivia, but for the fact that Search and Rescue is a particularly sore spot in our collective consciousness right now. That’s because Mackay’s department is shutting down this province’s Marine Rescue Sub-station – which professionals and fishers and sailors (i.e. the people who actually know best) are all saying is a dangerous and disastrous move – in order to save money. Yet using those same SAR resources that he’s intending to take away from their important role saving our sailors, and substituting them for his own personal taxi, is a bit like a double slap in the face to, well, rational sense and decency.

The second reason it’s particularly galling is because one opposition St. John’s MP – Ryan Cleary – as part of representing his district and province tried to arrange a tour of the Air Force facility in Gander mere months ago, but was turned away with the explanation that they’re too busy for tours and it would disrupt vital base operations (even if planned weeks in advance). Yet these operations are not so vital, it turns out, that they can’t pause what they’re doing to go pick up Mackay from his fishing hole.

…these operations are not so vital, it turns out, that they can’t pause what they’re doing to go pick up Mackay from his fishing hole.

The minister’s behaviour is akin to that schoolyard bully who intimidates the other kids into going to McDonalds and buying him lunch and bringing it back to him. And then when word seeps out to the teacher on duty at lunchtime, and the teacher confronts him, he tries to pass it off as those kids just deciding to bring him a random gift. Or then switches his story to say they owed him the money for lunch. And then when the teacher criticizes him for trying to worm his way out of being held accountable for his actions, the teacher is told to drop the matter because the bully is the son of the school principal and should therefore be allowed to get away with more than the average student.

Would that be the sort of lesson we’d want our other students to learn?

Being accountable

A teacher’s perspective on the matter provides some interesting insight. As I was musing about the notion of accountability – a term that’s increasingly tossed around, with little clarification about what it actually means – I asked a teacher friend of mine what she thinks of when she hears the word ‘accountability’.

“Accountability is really important for us, as teachers,” she replied. “We have to be accountable to parents for what we teach their children. We must always be prepared to explain to them fully what we do in the classroom, and why we do it. Parents always have the right to know, if they ask.”

I thought about that: it wasn’t the response I’d expected. But it applied nicely. If teachers always have to be prepared to account for their actions in the classroom, and be held responsible for them, then so should cabinet ministers. The fact that journalists and opposition members had to dig through layer after layer of clumsily spun excuses belies the lack of accountability of our most prominent ministers. What has become of our democracy when a teacher shows so much greater accountability of character than a cabinet minister – the sort of person who is supposed to be a model citizen?

“We’re also accountable to the students,” she continued. “After all, if we don’t do our jobs correctly, they’re the ones who don’t learn the lessons they need.”

I nodded. Herein lies another role of our cabinet ministers: not only making the decisions that affect our economy, defense, and industry, but also serving as examples of the sort of character Canadian citizens are supposed to demonstrate to the world. When they act with childish impetuousness, misuse their office and then dodge responsibility, they convey to the world an image of Canadians as petty, scheming and dishonest.

A greater morality

Moreover, such actions have an effect on the country’s greater moral fabric. Remember that stereotype of Canadians as “nice, friendly people”? Well, when people are prepared and willing to be accountable for their actions, that is what leads them to be nice people: the fact that we are willing to live with integrity, to be called out on our actions when we deserve it, and to own up to them when we don’t act with integrity or decency. If indeed Canadians are a “nice, friendly people”, it is because we have learned to ‘live actively’: to absorb the sense of accountability which leads us to think before we act, and then act in full conscious awareness of the consequences of our actions. And with full willingness to be held accountable for them.

If our Conservative government ministers are now conveying a new image of Canadian values – one which states that enough influence and power means you can squirm out of having to be accountable or pay the price for your actions when you act with poor character – then we should be prepared to quickly see the wider morality of Canadians wither and dissolve as we absorb the lessons shown to us by our own scheming, unwilling-to-admit-wrongdoing government representatives. We will not long remain a “nice, friendly people”.

A matter of trust

There is a greater concern here for Newfoundland and Labrador, too, and it lies in the nature of trust. Mackay is the federal minister of defence – and as such responsible for the Coast Guard and Search and Rescue – two services of vital importance to all of our people who work or travel on the oceans which surround our shores. We trust their offices to make decisions that are in our best interest, with the knowledge and facts that they have at their disposal. One such decision was the decision – still controversial – to shut down the Marine Rescue Sub-Station in Newfoundland. Mackay’s office argues that the sub-station is not vital to SAR operations, and that its closure will not impact safety. So long as his office can be trusted, there is some reason to accept that argument. Yet Mackay’s actions surrounding the chopper scandal have shattered and undermined public trust in his actions and in his office. With that trust now in doubt, it leads us to doubt the integrity of other decisions stemming from his office. If his office holds truth and accountability so lightly, how are we to know they haven’t also compromised the facts and data when it comes to offshore SAR safety decisions?

There is only one thing for a government to do when one of its ministers shows poor decision-making, undermines the public confidence in their office and demonstrates poor traits of character toward those they represent. If that minister wishes to act honourably, and still has a sense of integrity, they will offer their resignation. If they do not, a government that is honourable and still has integrity will demand it, for the public good so much as for the credibility of their office.

Defiance is not a virtue: it is a sign of the decay of public accountability and a national moral fabric that is growing increasingly threadbare. For the sake of his office, and for the sake of the country, Mackay must resign.

And until he does, we must neither forget, nor move on.

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