David McLaughlin is a former chief of staff to the prime minister of Canada, the premier of New Brunswick and federal minister of finance
A long time ago in a Parliament far, far away, the question of public money being used for partisan purposes would never have arisen let alone become public.
But the practice of politics has changed in Canada and so too have the politicians who practice it.
The political inquisition of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair over his party’s ostensible redirection of Parliamentary funds to staff satellite offices in Montreal and Toronto is the inevitable consequence of how blurred the lines have become between being political and being partisan.
This is not a distinction without a difference. We elect MPs from political parties to represent us and should neither be surprised nor disappointed when they act in a manner that puts their political beliefs and parties before their opponents. But we draw the line at using taxpayers’ resources, either from government or within Parliament, to promote their narrow partisan advantage over the common advantage of Canadians.
But where and when to draw the line?
Instinctively, we know that when a politician or party draws that line for us, there is more than a hint of self-interest in doing so. When MPs and ministers assert various actions are within rules or beyond reproach, they are inviting the public to judge them on a very slippery slope.
The public’s demand for more and more accountability from its politicians reflects not an increased engagement and interest in democratic outcomes but a congealed mistrust of both the actors and the system itself.
This is not just a one-off example matter of ‘politicians behaving badly’. It has consequences for how MPs do their jobs and what we expect from them.
Fielding constituency calls and messages, helping the local mayor on a federal matter, even lobbying for a temporary foreign worker is the bread and butter of an MP’s daily work. Staff help do that too, which is the basic argument of what the NDP claims its satellite offices were engaged in.
The reality is that Parliament Hill is replete with taxpayer-funded political staff who, well, do politics. Is a communications staffer who writes a news release promoting the work of an MP in one of 307 constituencies anything but political?
Frankly, it is a fallacy to expect that paid political staff will not engage in the political promotion or aggrandizement of their bosses, their party, or government. But it is not too much to expect, even demand, that they draw the line at being paid by the public to carry out explicit partisan activity that benefits their party. Each party has an office funded by political donations to do that.
This is the crux of the NDP’s imbroglio and Mr. Mulcair’s switch from prosecutor –in-chief at Question Period to Perry Mason defence attorney mode at committee.
Much is being made of Mr. Mulcair’s assertive style and image in defence of his party’s actions. Too hot; too aggressive; too arrogant. Too, well, partisan. Forget the pop psychology of ‘Angry Tom’. This is simply a reminder of that other hat our politicians wear and one that NDP supporters increasingly believe their leader wears well on their behalf.
There is an arc of partisanship in any majority Parliament: less in the early years and more as the next election edges closer. That too is at play here, sixteen months or so to the next vote.
If you think this is ‘just politics’ or another manifestation of ‘all’s fair in love and politics’, think again.
Together, this reflects two core features of Canadian politics today: the search for marginal competitive advantage over one’s opponent at all times as part of a permanent campaign mentality, and the breakdown of whatever collegiality existed behind closed doors in the shared management of the House of Commons.
This is consequential to shaping our national political culture. It makes for even more crossing, blurring, and erasing of the ethical lines desired by Canadians compared to the behavioural lines exhibited by their Members of Parliament.
How this will play out for the NDP and Mr. Mulcair is not yet decided. How it will play out for Canadians is: another installment is just around the corner.