On May 10, 2012, we held the final History Wars debate of the season. In this debate, former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps and award-winning journalist Andrew Coyne debated the resolution: Power corrupts Canadian Prime Ministers. In case you missed this debate, it is now available on-demand courtesy of CPAC. Click here to watch the video and click here to view the photos!

Also, the Ottawa Citizen published the opening statements following the debate. They are copied below:

 

Does power corrupt Canadian PMs? (Copps)

NO: Corruption can happen in any field, but politicians can also accomplish great things, motivated by love of country, writes Sheila Copps.

By Sheila Copps, Ottawa Citizen, May 11, 2012

The provocative title for this debate is in the affirmative: Power corrupts Canadian prime ministers.

I am in the unenviable position of arguing in the negative. After all, it is generally believed that all politicians are corrupt. The only issue is often the degree of corruption. That stereotype is not restricted to modern times.

Lord Acton's famous 1887 aphorism proclaimed, "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

Consider such tyrants as Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin Dada and Adolf Hitler, to name a few. Without question, these politicians committed horrific crimes. And, viewed in isolation, one could be forgiven for falling back on the notion that power corrupts every politician.

One can also comb through evening news to witness the tribulations of governors, senators and mayors who have been caught with their nose deep in the public trough. From the horrific to the benign, there is no shortage of examples to demonstrate the prevalence of political corruption.

But neither is the notion of corruption restricted to politicians.

As an ex-politician turned journalist, I feel like I have the worst of both worlds. Politics is the only profession where the more experience you get, the more they want to get rid of you.

Collective disdain for the ruling class is not uniquely Canadian. Mark Twain actually captured the majority view when he wrote "reader, suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress, but I repeat myself."

When I first entered cabinet as environment minister in 1993, I was preparing a cabinet submission in support of our Red Book commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 per cent. My deputy minister dryly warned me to water down my expectations.

"That was politics, this is government," he said.

So those in service of public policy start from the premise that elections are about promises and government is not necessarily about delivering.

What a conundrum!

But at the end of the day, trust us politicians to stick together. We have mastered the art of the quick retort, honed through years of bombastic ripostes in Parliament. Here is a gem from Winston Churchill. Lady Astor once told him in exasperation, "If you were my husband, I think I'd put arsenic in your coffee." To which he replied, "Madam, if I were your husband, I'd drink it." Another angry Astor retort followed. "Sir, you're drunk." To which he replied, "Yes madam, and you're ugly. But in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly."

According to Stephen Leacock, "American politicians will do anything for money. English politicians will take the money and won't do anything." Canadian politicians don't even rank a mention.

So I left politics for a higher calling, journalism. Here is what Rudyard Kipling had to say about journalists, "power without responsibility, is the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages." As for Oscar Wilde, "journalism is unreadable and literature is not read."

I'm not here today to defend the lofty objectives of politics or the media. I am here to explain why I believe that politicians are simply a reflection of humanity. Some are capable of great vision and leadership and, others, unspeakable horrors.

A fairer question would be, "are politicians more corruptible in the attainment of power than their counterparts in other spheres of endeavour"?

With that in mind, I'll cite the examples of Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black, media tycoons and possessors of power stemming from capital and influence. Should their activities demean the reputations of all journalists?

Do the actions of executives at Enron and WorldCom cast a pall over all chief executives? I think not. Philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet — holders of power, wealth and influence, are widely respected for their positive impacts on society.

In the private sector, for every story involving a discredited and fraudulent executive, there are many other business leaders praised as "job creators," "visionaries" and "leaders of industry."

So too, politicians can either use power for the common good, or succumb to the temporal pull of personal gain and corruption.

In Canada, political visionaries have wrought far-reaching and positive changes to our society. Because of a prime minister, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects all citizens.

The Multiculturalism Act, a political document, redefined our country, to shape a society based on pluralism and equality for all citizens.

The very foundation of Canada is built on the courageous notion that two distinct peoples, with different histories, customs and cultures, could unite to form one country. None of these societal changes could have happened, if politicians were not vested with power. Political power, exercised for collective benefit, is the purest form of public service.

Public scrutiny of Canadian prime ministers and other elected officials is intense and growing — and the country is better for it.

Are there examples of politicians gone wrong? Of course, but to imply that corruption abounds in our leaders and that each has a predilection to act in their own interests is as unfounded as saying all media moguls are crooked.

In all spheres of influence, a few bad apples are bound to turn up. But for the majority, the drive to succeed and the desire to do well are intrinsically linked.

Politicians put themselves out there for public scrutiny; those who pass the public's muster are rewarded with the power to act.

Every so often, a true visionary does something extraordinary — and changes the world. That power is incorruptible.

Sheila Copps is former deputy prime minister.

The Debate: Thursday night at the University of Ottawa, in a debate hosted by the Macdonald Laurier Institute, sponsored by the Ottawa Citizen and moderated by historian Jack Granatstein, former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps debated columnist Andrew Coyne.

The resolution: Power corrupts Canadian prime ministers.

 

Does power corrupt Canadian PMs? (Coyne)

YES: There are few exceptions to the rule that power corrupts, and few are more powerful than Canadian prime ministers, writes Andrew Coyne.

By Andrew Coyne, Ottawa Citizen, May 11, 2012

Between Sir John A. Macdonald's plaintive letter to his benefactor in the Pacific Scandal, Sir Hugh Allan ("I must have another $10,000. ... Do not fail me.") and Brian Mulroney's furtive receipt, weeks after he left office, of wads of $1,000 bills from the international arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber, allegations of outright corruption among Canadian prime ministers, in the sense of direct personal involvement in wrongdoing, have been rare. We have had premiers driven from office for being corrupt in this country — we may have one or two more before long — but no prime minister has since Macdonald.

But corruption takes many forms. The corruption that the Victorian liberal Lord Acton had in mind in the aphorism to which our resolution alludes was less about monetary gain than power's inevitable tendency to be abused. So many and obvious are the examples here, from Nero to Nixon, that one would almost agree with the poet Valéry, that "power without abuse loses its charm." Surely the question, then, is not whether "power corrupts Canadian prime ministers," but why we should imagine they would be the exceptions to this rule — not least since they are more than usually in a position to be tempted by it. Prime ministers in any Westminster system have always been powerful, but ours have amassed powers that are quite without parallel, if not without limit.

I would only add parenthetically that it is not only the possession of power that tends to corrupt but the acquisition of it: it is in the pursuit of power that prime ministers take the first steps along the path to perdition. Or rather it is in the originating lust for power, in those first moments when it occurs to them that they would like to possess it, that indeed they ought to possess it: for there is born the first compromises of principle, the first abandoned convictions, the first broken promises and the first lies and the first betrayals, and with each step the next becomes a little easier, and a little easier, until at last you forget you are even doing it. It would be surprising if prime ministers did not display a particular gift for this. That's how they got to be prime minister.

The past several decades have witnessed an accelerating decline in political mores among our leaders, notably in the alacrity with which they have taken to betraying, not only their principles or their friends, but the general public. Each succeeding prime minister has topped the last by the magnitude of the whoppers they were willing to tell to win power.

At the time, we thought Trudeau's 1974 performance, campaigning against Robert Stanfield's proposed wage and price controls, only to enact them the minute he was in office, set a standard that would never be equalled. But of course it was. Mulroney came to power on a promise to clean up the ethical mess left by the departed Trudeau, notably in matters of patronage — you had an option, he primly lectured the hapless John Turner, you could have said no — only to exceed him by a wide margin.

Jean Chrétien won the 1993 election on the strength of a political program promising, inter alia, to abolish the GST, renegotiate NAFTA, and reverse several years of Tory spending cuts. In fact he kept the GST, left NAFTA intact, and cut spending far more than any Conservative had ever dared. As for the present occupant of the office, the list of broken promises, discarded principles and outright falsehoods would fill the rest of my time, from income trusts to appointed Senators, from deficits to Afghanistan.

Why do our prime ministers behave this way? Partly because it works: we are every bit as cynical as they are. (Try to imagine a Canadian prime minister appealing to his country to ask not what your country can do for you. ... There's a reason they don't.)

Partly because it is so tempting: the prize to be won is so great, because the power is so unchecked, that it would tempt many a good man, possibly even a few good women, to do things he or she would otherwise shrink from.

But mostly they do it because they can: there is very little that can hold a prime minister to any course he does not wish to pursue, or obstruct him from the one he prefers.

Who or what prevents a prime minister of Canada from doing as he pleases? The governor general? But he is his appointee. The Senate? He appoints all the senators. The courts? He appoints every member of the Supreme Court, and all the federal court judges, too. The bureaucracy? He appoints the clerk of the privy council, every deputy minister, the governor of the Bank of Canada, the heads of all the major Crown corporations, even the ambassadors. The police? He appoints the chief of the RCMP (an agency that has seemed more and more politicized in recent years).

Those independent officers of Parliament, like the auditor general, the information, privacy and ethics commissioners? He appoints them, too.

Ah, but the prime minister must command the confidence of the House of Commons. Surely that is the ultimate check on his power. Really? He appoints all the committee chairs (or those in which the government has a majority). He appoints the cabinet, of course, but also the parliamentary secretaries and the whips. So members of the governing caucus, if they have hope of advancement, have every incentive to seek his favour, and to fear his wrath.

Trudeau, Mulroney, Chrétien, Harper. What started out as mere arrogance has progressed through lies and bullying to contempt of Parliament and scandal, to the point where we cannot even be sure the electoral process itself has not been compromised.

Our prime ministers have become too powerful. That power has tended to be abused, just as Acton might have predicted it would.

It used to be said that Canada "could never have a Watergate": that a prime minister, answerable to the House, would be compelled to resign long before things progressed to the cover-up and obstruction of justice stages. But such is the decline of our institutions of accountability, such indeed are the absence of checks and balances, that today one is not so sure. Suppose we did have a Watergate. How would we know?

Andrew Coyne is a Postmedia columnist.

The Debate: Thursday night at the University of Ottawa, in a debate hosted by the Macdonald Laurier Institute, sponsored by the Ottawa Citizen and moderated by historian Jack Granatstein, former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps debated columnist Andrew Coyne.

The resolution: Power corrupts Canadian prime ministers.

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One Coment, RSS

  • Sarah

    says on:
    May 24, 2012 at 9:06 am

    Great debate! Were there photos taken from this event? If so where can I find them?