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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

A disheartening year in Canadian politics Add to ...

Mark down 2013 as an annus horribilis for those who want the best from Canadian politics.

Scandals, corruption and buffoonery too often dominated the news, causing even more Canadians to get mad, disillusioned or turned off their public affairs. How could at least some of them not feel this way?

There are plenty of honourable and hard-working people in politics and public service. They don’t make headlines, so it’s easy to forget about them and what they do. It must be disheartening for these people to do the public’s business when too much of political life was besmirched by dishonourable, even disgraceful, behaviour in 2013.

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Where to start? Pick your own bottoming-out point, but a defensible suggestion would be the country’s two largest cities – Toronto and Montreal – where appalling displays shook the confidence of anyone in government.

What is there to say about Rob Ford that U.S. stand-up comics haven’t already said? Mr. Ford lives in his own world of buffoonery, denial and lies, such that he has been stripped of most of his mayoral power, although he retains an unfathomable hold on a slice of the electorate.

There is almost no depth to which Mr. Ford will not sink in his public comments, the latest being his hint (since retracted) that a Toronto Star reporter might be a pedophile. Nor does he apparently care that his conduct has made Toronto a byword for government buffoonery around the world. Yet despite what he has put the city through, in the weird public psychosis of the saga, Mr. Ford and his supporters see him as the victim.

In Montreal, citizens were exposed to a months-long parade of former civic officials, politicians and people with alleged ties to organized crime testifying before the Charbonneau commission about widespread, prolonged and systemic corruption in the city government. Two Montreal mayors left office under a cloud, as did two in nearby Laval.

Just as it’s amazing that a minority of Torontonians have elevated Mr. Ford into a colourful folk hero, so the amazing testimony in Montreal was really a reflection about some of that city’s citizens. How was it, with so many people complicit in the corruption for so long, that no one blew the whistle?

What the Charbonneau commission testimony revealed this year was a way of doing business based on assumptions and practices whereby legality and honour were systematically suborned by a culture of deceit, backscratching and venality.

It Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, which had arrived in office touting its Accountability Act, found itself immersed in a Senate spending scandal that dragged on for months, and will return to the front pages whenever some or all of those involved are charged.

As often occurs in such affairs, the frantic cover-up attempt became as much the story as the original alleged misdeeds.

The effort extended to Conservative leaders in the Senate and the Prime Minister’s own entourage. Mr. Harper insisted that he knew nothing about what his aides were doing, after having told Mr. Duffy that he should pay back money for expenses the Prime Minister did not feel the senator deserved to claim. According to polls, the Canadian public found that explanation hard to credit, given what they know of the Prime Minister’s iron control.

Speaking of iron control, more and more people appeared to be chafing at the Harper government’s tactics: stuffing disparate measures into omnibus bills, hiding ministers from public comment, staffing offices with minions whose major job consists of saying “no comment,” using tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to advertise government positions on television, generally communicating the public’s business in the most manipulative way possible.

In Ontario, the stench of former premier Dalton McGuinty government’s decision to cancel two gas-fired power plants at a cost of about $1-billion in order to try to save two seats offers a plausible reason to throw the provincial Liberals out of office. Add to that outrage, the bloated salaries and self-protection from senior officials at the Ontario Power Generation utility make an easy target for those upset by electricity rates, which will continue to skyrocket, to the detriment of the province’s economy and citizens.

Annus horribilis, indeed.

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