Penny Bryden is a professor of history at the University of Victoria and president of the Canadian Historical Association.
Within the past eight months, we have learned the federal government buried a provision in a 2018 omnibus budget bill enabling deferred prosecution agreements, which allow corporations to avoid criminal charges by paying a penalty. We have learned that construction and engineering giant SNC-Lavalin lobbied hard for such a clause. The fallout was extensive and has reached into Parliament, the senior civil service and other areas of government. Four senior members of government are gone.
Surely this has all the makings of a political scandal of the highest order.
But does it meet the three criteria needed for a true scandal?
First, there must be a transgression; next, a cover-up; and finally, sustained public outrage.
The first element in any scandal is a transgression. In the SNC-Lavalin case, the transgression is the insertion of a remediation loophole in the Criminal Code – apparently with the intention of using it in the SNC-Lavalin case.
In other cases of scandal in Canada, though, the transgression has been the acceptance of campaign funds (such as the Pacific Scandal of the 1870s) or choice of lovers (in the Munsinger affair of the 1960s) or the purchase of a $16 glass of orange juice (expensed by a former cabinet minister of the Harper government in 2011 at a pricey London hotel).
Then there is an attempt to conceal. Here, the concealment took a number of forms, from pressure on former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to negotiate a settlement with SNC-Lavalin, to limits on the scope of the public inquiry into the events.
But the next element of scandal fails the test. There needs to be public interest. It has to produce some level of outrage. And on this matter, we have seen little in the way of outrage. The Trudeau Liberals almost put the SNC-Lavalin case behind them – until this week.
Political scandals reflect the sensibilities of the day. Railway scandals such as the Pacific Scandal were common from the middle to the end of the 19th century. A great deal of money was hidden within the labyrinthine corporate structure of railway companies, but when it was used to manipulate the political system, it was the politicians with their hands in the pot who paid the price.
Patronage scandals are also common throughout Canadian history. But the distribution of favours, generally in the form of contracts, can occur for decades with nary a raised eyebrow until the public says “enough.” That happened during the First World War, when contracts for war supplies were seen to be handed to companies with Conservative inclinations by the governing Conservatives. Scandals involving everything from bacon to bicycles erupted and threatened to topple at least some of the members of the Bordon government. The sponsorship scandal 90 years later was another case of questionably distributed government contracts, this time for services in the name of federalism.
Canadians seem particularly likely to get outraged about money issues. Even an exorbitantly priced glass of orange juice was enough to end the career of Bev Oda. One of the reasons the SNC-Lavalin case hasn’t turned into a full-blown scandal is that it doesn’t have a specific price tag on it.
But there’s another reason this affair had largely disappeared from the public radar. What becomes a scandal is determined by the mood of the public, by what triggers outrage at that particular moment. While money issues have often piqued Canadian outrage, not every financial transgression has led to a scandal. In the past, the circumstances of new nationhood or war or growing separatist sentiments determined the moments that the public was mad enough to lift a transgression and a cover-up into the realm of scandal.
And right now, the mood of the public is placid. The capacity for outrage seems low.
Have Canadians become inured to scandal? Has the Trump effect dulled even the neighbours’ ability to exercise political indignation? Or is the reverse happening? Has outrage become so commonplace that it barely registers – and certainly cannot be focused on one issue and sustained for any length of time?
Have we entered a postscandal political world? Has it become impossible for scandal to take root?
While the transgression and the cover-up are in the hands of the political actors, the ascent to scandal remains firmly controlled by the public. And if we have truly entered a postscandal age, we are relinquishing an important means of holding politicians accountable.
Elections happen every few years, but a scandal can happen any time. Still, it can only happen if there’s momentum. And that’s a quality that seems strangely absent in the current environment.
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