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OPINION | Why don’t ethics scandals stick anymore?

For many observers, one of the biggest surprises of the 2019 federal election was how little, after all the coverage they garnered, the SNC-Lavalin scandal seemed to matter to the end result. To be sure, both the Conservatives and NDP tried to turn the scandal into a totem of insider Liberal corruption at the expense of average citizens. This narrative may have shifted a few votes here and there, playing into the government’s loss of its majority status. Further, Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was demoted as Justice Minister after pushing back against entreaties to offer the company a deferred prosecution agreement, did manage the difficult feat of winning back her seat in Vancouver-Granville as an Independent, in a hotly contested local race. But, on the whole, the election was conducted on familiar ground: the state of the economy, health care policy, the credibility of the parties on tackling climate change, the role of natural resources in Canada’s future economic framework, and, occasionally, allegations of unsavory personal behavior or “extreme” beliefs on the part of individual candidates.

There are numerous other examples of this phenomenon, where an ethical scandal will appear as fatally damaging for a government for a period of time, and lead to a heightened rhetorical attack from those already opposed to that government, but then peter out. Remember the WE Charity scandal and the accusations that it would permanently damage the standing of the government? If you had to dig a bit in your memory to think of that, you’re not alone, as the political discourse quickly (and perhaps more substantively) moved to matters of vaccines and the government’s handling of a second wave of COVID-19. Indeed, since the start of the pandemic, the major factor which has led to the decline of approval ratings for both federal and provincial governments has been perceived poor handling of COVID-19, which is a proximate crisis affecting nearly all of the population (albeit in very different ways). Though the WE scandal did contribute to the resignation of then-Finance Minister Bill Morneau, its damage to the government was ultimately negligible in the medium term, and it would be very surprising if it featured prominently in the next election.

This is not simply a matter of Justin Trudeau in particular being political Teflon; think of the Mike Duffy Senate scandal or the “Robocall” affair which dogged the Harper government in the press from 2011 to 2015, but ultimately had little traction in the 2015 campaign. It is true that a slow, steady conglomeration of scandals can lead to a general perception of corruption or lack of integrity which can defeat a government at the polls, all else being equal. However, the days of a “bombshell” revelation of insider dealing or improper procedure being able to totally derail a government’s fortunes or even force the resignation of a leader in the mold of a Watergate or a Gomery Commission are, seemingly, gone.

The Impact of Polarization

What are the reasons for this? Certainly, in many countries, increased polarization between political parties has something to do with this. Many outside observers of the United States remained perpetually shocked that various revelations around the Trump administration, ranging from low-level self-dealing in government expenses with his hotels to his paying almost nothing in taxes for over a decade, did not seem to dent the  rock solid support for the president amongst his base. Simply put, in a political world where less individuals are persuadable in their voting behavior, the impact of ethnically-based scandals will be less. Polarization also affects the ability and incentives of politicians within the same party as the implicated person(s) to break ranks in order to hold them accountable. A comparison between the situations of Richard Nixon and Trump when both were caught in scandals leading to impeachment is instructive here. In Nixon’s case, the Watergate scandal caused enough Republicans to be on board with his (pending) impeachment that he resigned rather than face the certainty of being terminated. In Trump’s case, whatever one’s view of the merits of both of the impeachment cases against him, it is clear that the congressional GOP was, in the main, not on board with either attempt. From a crude political calculus, this is likely because those congresspersons fear an internal challenge from a pro-Trump upstart for disloyalty over losing swing voters. It is possibly true that, given Joe Biden’s narrow margins of victory in some key states, a distaste for Trump’s ethical breaches amongst those who may have otherwise supported his policies was critical in the ultimate result of the election. However, that result was not the mass repudiation that many expected, but rather a victory well within the range of a normal election campaign, demonstrating that though the set of persuadable voters may be critical in a tight race, it is not actually that large.

Some of the some factors driving polarization are also present in Canada, albeit in different ways. Polarization by region, with Conservatives having strong victory margins in Saskatchewan and Alberta while underperforming in Quebec and Ontario, due to perceived or actual alignment of regional interests with certain party policy objectives is one way this is expressed. If voters in Alberta, for instance, are uneasy with certain ethical lapses by the Conservatives, but also perceive other parties as existentially hostile to oil and gas development, it’s unlikely that their vote can be swayed. That said, the pool of swing voters does, for now, appear to be larger in Canada, as can be seen from Erin O’Toole’s recent efforts to reposition his party towards the political centre ground. Still, it is instructive that his attacks on the Trudeau government which seem to have made an actual dent in its approval numbers are on questions of competency surrounding the rollout of vaccines, an issue with a very concrete impact on the lives of citizens, rather than ethical scandals. So, if polarization isn’t entirely to blame for the declining salience of ethics scandals, what is driving this shift?

Voters Are Cynical (And Who Can Blame Them?)

There may be another, more widespread reason beyond voter polarization driving the diminishing impact of ethics scandals. Simply put, there is a crisis of trust in traditionally authoritative institutions, politics very much amongst them. Consistently, citizens throughout democratic countries report low levels of trust in political leadership in general terms. In part, this may reflect the growing influence of alternative information networks and informational siloing which support the growth of non-mainstream (though not necessarily inaccurate) narratives which break from bounds of debate typically seen in politics at the national electoral level.  More likely, though, is that citizens have come to expect a certain level of self-dealing and corruption in politics as the price of doing business, and are more focused on immediate outcomes for themselves and their communities than in some sort of grander principle. For example, polling prior to the recent provincial election in British Columbia showed that a majority of voters disapproved of John Horgan’s decision to call an election in the first instance, feeling that it was reckless and cynical in the context of an ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, the incumbent NDP government was still reelected, converting its shaky minority into a strong majority, mainly because voters perceived their handling of the pandemic as competent and their plans for the future of the province more convincing than other parties.

The model that still prevails for understanding how ethics scandals should affect governments and politicians is still the 1973 Watergate revelations. The narrative goes something like this: government does something unethical or illegal (borderline or otherwise), courageous news media uncovers it, scandal erupts, pressure builds as the public and political actors turn on the guilty parties, guilty parties resign in disgrace. The assumptions which underpinned the Watergate situation, though, such as a relatively unified and homogenous news media environment and underlying trust in politicians that can be breached by scandal in the first place are no longer true. Of course, whether or not politicians and government were actually worthy of such trust in the past is very much up for debate (as the number of historical corruption scandals in across countries is almost innumerable), but underlying public sentiment has nevertheless shifted drastically. In a world where the baseline expectation is one of distrust and assumed corruption, any scandal will need to be massively exceeding that norm or implicate some other concern on the part of voters to be truly damaging. And, frankly, even if they may seem that way to people already arrayed against the government of the day, even large scandals like SNC-Lavalin don’t rise to this level.

Conclusion

This is not to say that ethics in government don’t matter in and of themselves, or even that a loose approach towards corruption can’t damage a government. A raft of scandals occurring in rapid succession, or attempts to cover up scandals that spin out of control, can still lead to a government’s downfall, but it is more a slow-drip accumulation than an all-at-once reckoning. For those looking to hold governments accountable, or simply bewildered at why the general public isn’t as outraged as they are at government malfeasance, it might be worth taking a step back and refocusing. For most people, politics is seen as a shady business almost inherently, but one that can, occasionally, produce concrete gains for their lives. Calling out governments for failures in the realms of tangible results, of which there are no shortage of examples, is likely to be more effective than raging on about insider scandals that only those already deeply engaged in the process care about. This fact does speak to a baseline cynicism which may be disheartening, but, then again, it does better reflect the insight that politics is only worthwhile insofar as it can change people’s lives and social conditions. Most of the rest of it is, increasingly, deemed by the public as theatre which they want as little as possible to do with.

 

 

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