The spending controversy in Ottawa demonstrates that rules are less important than the public’s perception of what is right, reasonable, and fair.

When news broke that two senior PMO staffers billed the government for more than $200,000 in moving expenses, the immediate reaction was rage and indignation. It mattered little that it appears that the government’s rules were followed or that the sum is, relatively speaking, small.  After all, the Government of Canada spends billions of dollars each year and most Canadians would be at a loss if asked how much is spent in any given category.

In the world of politics, perception is as important as reality; indeed, perception is reality. And when it comes to spending, citizens are particularly sensitive to perceived overspending or unreasonable expensing — whether it’s a glass of orange juice, a limousine ride, or moving expenses. When expenses stories break, “I was following the rules” becomes a tepid defence. As unfair as it may seem to be, politicians and their members of staff are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard than “the rules,” because those rules are less important than the public’s perception of what is right, reasonable, and fair.

Admittedly, this puts politicians and staffers in a difficult position. The public are a fickle bunch. The fictional British political spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker puts it nicely: “People don’t like their politicians to be comfortable. They don’t like you having expenses. They don’t like you being paid. They’d rather you lived in a fucking cave.” That said, there’s a reason that work in politics is called “public service” — with an emphasis on “service.”

Most of our democratic institutions require deep networks of trust between the public and those in public life in order to function and to be seen as legitimate. There is little in a democracy more important than trust. Apparent or actual violations of trust through misspending or other misdeeds erode trust, generate cynicism, and turn people off of politics.

Moreover, we have long memories when it comes to real or perceived breaches of trust. The Duffy affair is a recent example, as are other Senate spending controversies, but the Sponsorship Scandal is now over a decade old and its ghost still haunts federal politics (and let’s not forget that it contributed significantly to the fall of the Paul Martin Liberals).

Over time, these scandals can quickly pile up like unread issues of the Economist. Each is stacked upon the last and, over time, even as details are forgotten, individuals are left with a distinct impression that politicians and their staff are lazy, corrupt, incompetent, and in it for themselves or for the money.

This is awfully unfortunate. I’ve been following and participating in federal politics for nearly two decades and in those years I’ve met countless politicians and staffers. Nearly every single one seems to be in politics for honourable reasons and they are among the hardest working people I’ve met. But the virtue of their dedication is lost when perceptions of misdeeds emerge.

It isn’t enough to ask “Is this allowed?” — those who serve the public must also ask “Is this going to be perceived as reasonable?” To paraphrase Aristotle, the ethics of public service must transcend the rules of the day; the ethics of public service must instead be based upon practical wisdom: knowing what to do, when to do it, and how to do it — with a keen eye to how one’s actions will be perceived.

There’s a scene in Robert Bolt’s classic work ‘A Man for All Seasons’, about the life of Thomas More, in which King Henry VIII is discussing his desire for More to approve of his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. More is wondering why the King should care that he supports his decision, given that everyone else agrees with it. The King explains: “Because you’re honest…and what’s more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest.”

Whether we like it or not, politics is about what’s perceived to be true. And what’s perceived to be true quickly becomes what’s known to be true. Because of that, only the highest standards of conduct will do.

Photo: Chris Young / The Canadian Press

 


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