Failing grade for trust in Canadian political institutions in 2012

corruption headlinesRobocalls directing voters to incorrect polling stations, massive kick-backs to corrupt federal and municipal officials … this doesn’t sound like Canada does it? Sadly, it’s not been a great year for trust in Canadian politics. Our officials and wanna be leaders have done it to themselves and stuck us with serious costs in the process.

Living in Guelph, ON, the epicentre of what’s been called the Robocall scandal, I’ve had a front-row seat to a story that stubbornly refuses to unfold. Here are the basics: during the 2011 federal election, over 7,000 local voters, primarily Liberal-party supporters, received automated calls directing them to incorrect polling stations. When Elections Canada investigated, they found that the calls originated from an Edmonton-based internet provider, displayed the phone number of a prepaid “burner phone” registered to a “Pierre Poutine” of “Separatist Street” and other entirely false credentials.

Elections Canada continues its investigation and I’ll be interested to see how far up the chain of command the trail goes. For a party that wouldn’t let candidates respond to media calls in their own communities, I’m guessing database access and tactics were sanctioned pretty high up the food chain.

What matters even more to me though is the betrayal of voters by people who are running for office in my community! Call me old fashioned but if you want my vote then earn it. Talk to me about policy and vision and can it with your dirty tricks. If I can’t trust you to run a fair campaign, how can I trust you in Parliament?

I’ve written extensively about trust being built on credibility and benevolence. The Robocalls scandal is the absolute antithesis of these. The basic principle of an electoral democracy is that anyone who wants to represent their community and contribute to good public policy at a municipal, provincial or federal level can run for office, often sacrificing more lucrative careers, family time, etc. for love of community or country. There’s the benevolence that seems to have evaporated. The credibility piece comes in with a clear policy platform, substance over style (imagine!), courageous debate and vision. What happened to letting people chose ideas instead of sound bites or personality? Or at least not meddling in the electoral process?

Let’s think about the cost of the distrust created by these Robocalls. I don’t mean the $160 or so that it cost the elusive Pierre Poutine to make them. I mean, what was the cost of Elections Canada staff to field tens of thousands of calls from concerned Canadians? What will be the total cost of the Elections Canada investigation? What are the costs associated with the RCMP’s criminal investigations? How could that money and time have been better spent? How much will new oversight provisions cost in future elections? These are real, hard costs for the taxpayer. They are in addition to the more incalculable metrics like quantifying the cost of Canada’s damaged reputation in monitoring elections abroad or the cost of lower voter engagement. [Excuse me one moment, I need to take a deep breath!]

If you think this trust stuff is all a little naïve and airy fairy, the cold hard costs of distrust should be compelling enough.

These dirty tricks undermined confidence in the electoral process. What about the Charbonneau commission which looked into mafia-related construction kick-backs in Quebec? This raucous, nationally- televised inquiry revealed decades of rampant corruption in Montreal and other cities and prompted the resignation of both the mayors of Montreal and Laval.

A Globe & Mail story points out it’s “a universal story of greed feeding a complex web of construction bosses, politicians and government officials looking for extra profit or political donations.”

Our elected and wannabe elected officials need to understand that Canadian governments started the year with barely a passing grade on trust.

Last February, the Edelman Trust Barometer showed that only 56 per cent of “informed” respondents trust government. That number plummets 10 points to 46 per cent among the “general public”.

In a more recent survey, Parliament, the Prime Minister and political parties fare even worse (great alliteration, depressing stats).

In November, the Americas Barometer (conducted in Canada by Environics) found trust levels for the Canadian Parliament at 17 per cent, political parties at 10 per cent and the Prime Minister at 16 per cent.

You don’t have a lot of room to slip here, fellas! Your licence to operate is in jeopardy and the costs imposed by regulating better conduct will be borne by taxpayers.

Here are a few tips for candidates, political parties and government officials to increase their trust levels in 2013:

  1. Quit the dirty tricks. Don’t hold workshops that promote them and respect the democracy you intend to uphold.
  2. Vigorously root out corruption and sources of distrust.  A new police task force in Quebec has been successful in this respect.
  3. Quit the partisan bickering. Get back to your respective assemblies and focus on governing.

What advice would you add?

Published by Dominique O'Rourke

Public Affairs professional, City Councillor, MA Leadership graduate, problem solver and lifelong learner.

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