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Scandals and waste will continue

Amid the fanfare the accompanied the “retirement” this week of Pope Benedict XVI, there linger allegations his decision was tied to investigations into long-standing sexual and financial issues within the Church.

The concept of a pope’s infallibility aside, there are those who will assume Benedict’s decision, along with his body of work since assuming the papacy in 2005, was based on a desire to do good, recognizing the incompatibility of his health and his duties. That may be so, but too many of us seem much too eager to think well of those in authority, despite repeated examples of malfeasance and incompetence.

Take, for instance, the audit of Canadian senators, a process that has already ferreted out instances of wrongful expense claims – and promises of repayment. It’s just the latest indicator of what happens when there are not enough checks on power. Not surprisingly, there are no calls for greater accountability and new rules to prevent abuse, rather we have the federal government denying any wrongdoing and attempting to take the issue behind closed doors.

That, of course, is nothing new for the current bunch governing in Ottawa. From inappropriate Senate appointments to the in-and-out scandal, from robo-calls, shadow MPs, F-35 prevarications to OAS tampering, acting against the public interest is what we’ve come to expect. The same applies to governments of all political stripes. And, much more damagingly if not evident, from the business community, from the financial services-led economic swindle and recession to the investigation against former SNC Lavalin officials, which has implications for Waterloo Region’s light rail transit scheme, another fiasco in the making without any accountability mechanism.

Partisans turn a blind eye to all of the negatives, whether that’s in support of a particular party or a pet project. The rest of us look on apathetically, often resigned to the fact graft and corruption abound. A few note that incompetence is commonplace, from municipal bureaucracies through to the boardrooms of multinationals.

The only way that’s going to change is through the political will to push for true accountability. The politicians won’t do it, however, unless we force them to: they’re happy with a self-serving system that allows unfettered access to the cookie jar for themselves and their financial backers.

Quite simply, politicians have no interest in tightening up the rules to eliminate self-interest as a motivation for decision making among elected officials and bureaucrats. They’ll talk a good game, especially in opposition, but really want to keep their options open – they won’t even entertain rules to keep politicians from lying, on the hustings or otherwise.

Politicians write the rules for themselves. They prefer no rules, but failing that they draft vague rules with no enforcement. If there must be enforcement, then there are no penalties for breaking the rules.

Just look at the federal Conservatives’ much vaunted Accountability Act for a measure that falls into the realm of smokescreen. Having broken their promise to enact more than four dozen new accountability measures, the Conservatives introduced legislation to plug 30 of some 100 loopholes in current rules for open and accountable government. Of those 30, only 15 have been enacted, leaving the door wide open for business as usual.

We’ve become used to politicians saying one thing while on the campaign trail, and then doing just the opposite or nothing at all when they’re elected. That practice will continue as long as we allow it, as long as there are no penalties for lying.

For example, while politicians have passed laws making it illegal for corporations to bait consumers with false advertisements, it is still legal for politicians and public servants to lie to citizens. As long as lying remains legal, politicians will continue to conduct bait-and-switch election campaigns in which they bait voters with promises and then switch directions once they have won power, and politicians and public servants will continue to lie to cover-up wrongdoing or to mislead Canadians.

The first step in the cure is an honesty-in-politics law, as watchdog organizations have argued for years.

A simple step, but it seems like a pipedream. Getting politicians to do things for Canadian citizens – as opposed to their friends and donors – appears impossible. Getting them to behave honestly and ethically is just beyond the pale.

The key is to generate enough public outrage, and then to funnel that into action. Politicians, being out for number-one, want to be re-elected. To that end, they’re willing to listen to the public only if that means votes. Phone calls and letters can help sway politicians to do the right thing – that you and I think they should be doing that by default is another story.

Politicians want to stay in office – if enough people speak, they’ll listen. If enough people phone and write their elected officials, maybe, just maybe, we’ll see some changes.

Forcing politicians and bureaucrats to stop lying and serving themselves – no more lobbying, gifts, false promises and a host of other unethical behaviour that is commonplace today – will help put us on the road to real accountability.

Politicians, bureaucrats and corporate officials – far removed from even the pretense of papal infallibility – have to be held in check to prevent their greed, malfeasance and incompetence from diminishing our lives and our wallets.

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