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Jugular politics keep the best and brightest away

Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Oct. 8, 2010.


The unfortunate resignation last week of a Conservative cabinet minister's aide sheds some light on a shameful symptom in Canadian politics.

After it was revealed he interfered with several Access to Information requests while working for Christian Paradis at Public Works, Sebastien Togneri unceremoniously fell on his sword amid cries from the opposition for the minister's resignation, the establishment of a public inquiry into the matter and possible criminal charges.

Meddling in ATI requests is serious, but before rushing to judgment the situation needs to be considered with some perspective. For those outside of the political world, the events leading to Mr. Togneri's resignation would seem perfectly normal and, regrettably in Ottawa these days, they are. Yet what's often overlooked in these instances is the real result of the errors in question in a larger context, and how quickly our politicians are prepared to draw blood over ultimately harmless mistakes.

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While sometimes rewarding, the life of exempt staff (as political aides are proper known) is often a grueling and cruel Hobbesian nightmare. For many it is nasty, brutish and short - on top of being thankless. On both sides of the aisle these people are highly committed to public service and strive to help the government function properly in the interest of all Canadians, regardless of their partisan inclinations. They are some of the most important people in the operation of federal government, but they on occasion get caught in the complicated machinations of the political game even if their actions are well-intentioned. When a whiff of scandal hits, they are usually the first people to meet the underside of the bus.

The Conservative government, however, has admirably attempted to limit the unnecessary defenestration of staffers by invoking the constitutional convention of ministerial responsibility, in which cabinet ministers are accountable for the actions of their staff or department. Mr. Togneri's resignation shows that in the face of a hyper-partisan opposition - albeit one that is reflecting the equally partisan nature of the government - invoking ministerial responsibility is sometimes to little avail.

This rush-to-judgment culture and desire for the crucifixion of public officials is one of the largest problems with our political system.

While clearly exhibiting poor judgment in preventing the release of information (which was mostly banal), Mr. Togneri believed what he was doing was right and his transgressions were, in the grand scheme of things, very mild. But knowing the opposition would not relent until they saw heads rolling down Parliament Hill, he honourably submitted his resignation in order to allow the government to continue its work without the hassle of a nonsensical scandal hanging over its head. This was a costly mistake, and for it the government lost a good member of its staff.

If the results of an Information Commissioner's report in fact show Mr. Togneri breached protocol or if he is guilty of a crime, then his resignation is warranted and further action is possibly required. However, if the government were to have waited before calling for his dismissal, it would be a wonderful step for justice in the country. The presumption of innocence is still sacrosanct and while Mr. Togneri certainly erred, it may have been best to demote or transfer him until all the facts come to light and make a more rational decision at that time.

Regardless of the error, the circumstances surrounding Mr. Togneri's resignation are an ominous example as to why good people do not enter political life. Nobody wants to see their name on the front page for simply doing their job, partisan and delicate though it may be. Operating largely in the vague grey area of the political system, staffers often run the risk of being treated as punching bags by the opposition as a means for them to attack the government.

While the system of ministerial responsibility is a positive development for political staff, it has its limits. The calls for Mr. Paradis's resignation over these matters is an offensively irresponsible political charade, but it's one that's played out daily by all parties in the House of Commons. If we are prepared to demand the walking papers of every member of Parliament who has some minor problem befall their office then there would not be much of a government left.

Often touted as a Conservative Jean Chrétien without the penchant for skullduggery and public choking of his opponents, Mr. Paradis is exactly the type of person that should be entering politics. He is young, smart and subtle and Canadians should be happy that men of his caliber still occasionally stand for office.

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By rashly demanding his resignation, as well prematurely forcing that of Mr. Togneri, the opposition only strengthens the view among Canadians of the opprobrious contempt that politicians hold for one another and their preference for witch-hunting rather than addressing issues of greater importance to the country. This constant game of over politicking debases the institutions in which they operate and belittles the offices they hold.

If Canadians wonder why the best and the brightest no longer enter politics, it is precisely due to this atmosphere of malice and frivolity that has consumed our politics and occasionally forces competent players out of government without due process. In this vein, we should not be too hasty in casting aspersions on the actions of government ministers and their staff until all evidence has come to light and ultimately what that evidence really means.

This rush-to-judgment culture and desire for the crucifixion of public officials is one of the largest problems with our political system. Even politicians have the right to be thought innocent until proven guilty.

Sandy White was a political aide to Christian Paradis when he served as Public Works minister

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