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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

A little sympathy for poor John Duncan Add to ...

Sympathy is usually in short supply in politics, but a smidgen of that sentiment might be directed at John Duncan.

Mr. Duncan resigned as federal aboriginal affairs minister last week. The media opined that he had been a “weak” minister. Mr. Duncan quit because he sent a character reference to the Tax Court on behalf of a constituent in 2011. He explained that the letter was “written with honourable intentions,” but that it was “not appropriate” for a minister to write to the Tax Court.

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This is what the rules say – keep politicians away from courts and regulatory tribunals. But what if the rules are a little silly?

Our system sends people to Parliament to represent and help their constituents. What counts is the transparency with which they help. Clearly, private contact between ministers (or MPs) and courts or tribunals would be grossly wrong, since politicians would have privileged access denied to others.

But if we insist, as apparently we do, that ministers acting as MPs cannot send a public character reference for a constituent or a letter of support to a regulatory tribunal, then we are saying these elected officials cannot help their constituents in this way, although everybody else can.

Further, we are assuming judges and tribunal heads are so corruptible that their judgments would be swayed by a public letter from a minister or MP. If you believe that, you don’t have much faith in either the human condition or the integrity of those making judicial or quasi-judicial decisions.

Prior to Mr. Duncan’s resignation, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson upbraided Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and two parliamentary secretaries (MPs) for writing to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on behalf of constituents competing for a Toronto radio licence. Again, the submissions were public – anybody could read them – and presumably they were among many the CRTC received on the file. Defenders of public virtue would presumably claim these letters sullied, or risked sullying, the CRTC decision. Given the transparency of the submissions, it would be a stretched argument of the holier-than-thou kind so prevalent in today’s politics.

There’s another reason for a bit of sympathy for Mr. Duncan: the near impossibility of the aboriginal affairs file.

Every ministerial portfolio has its challenges, and thanks for a job well done are as rare in politics as sympathy. Every portfolio has lobby groups in various states of agitation, opposition party critics in constant full howl, a media inclined to think the worst and difficult decisions on every front – to say nothing of trying to keep The Boss and his staff at the Prime Minister’s Office contented.

Aboriginal affairs is especially challenging, as anyone who has watched the parade of ministers in that portfolio understands. Privately, it used to be called a survival portfolio, one through which the occupant passed while waiting for a portfolio where objectives could be attained and reputations burnished.

Very few aboriginal affairs ministers stay long. They have come with differing approaches over the decades, but it would be hard to identify one whose reputation was made there.

Some ministers decide to travel to meet with their far-flung constituents in aboriginal Canada, a decision that can make them marginally popular outside Ottawa. But then letters pile up in Ottawa, cabinet meetings are missed, the bureaucracy seizes up and complaints begin. Or the minister can stay in Ottawa, fighting battles, but the charge is then made that he or she doesn’t know what’s happening on the ground.

Money is always deemed grossly inadequate for evident and pressing needs. The Indian Act is supposed to guide some ministerial decisions but is vilified by those who live under it. Try to reform it and wait for the outcry. Demands that bands of fewer than 1,000 people become self-governing “nations” fill the air, no matter how implausible the realization. Court rulings change the rules of the game, forcing ministers to scramble to adjust.

Worse, polls consistently show – as they certainly do now – that doing a lot more for aboriginals isn’t very popular with the majority of Canadians. And since aboriginals don’t vote much in federal elections, there are few votes to be gained in those communities. Politically, the minister is in a classic Catch-22.

 

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