Sunday, March 28, 2010

Entitled aristocracies

In the world I want, the public service ethos includes accountability, trust, probity and equity. This is not merely a naive dream because, in practical terms, the qualities are essential to continuation of democracy. If trust in social and political leadership is deficient, individualist self-interest will replace cooperative mores, the voluntary behavioral guidelines that encourage lawful behavior in civil society.

What are the ultimate consequences if society loses mutual trust and broad desire for social cooperation? Do we become bands of survivalists, reliant on fortified retreats dominated by the strongest preying on the weakest? Or, does government become totalitarian by which oppressors regulate all aspects of life without regard for civil rights.

Sure, those are extreme outcomes, seemingly impossible in our comfortable land. However, empires have been rising and falling for millennia and our democratic tradition is surprisingly short, certainly less than 150 years, really only 50 years because First Nations people were not allowed voting rights until 1960. We take for granted that peaceful democracy is an unassailable birthright but it may not be. Simple research shows that the present incomplete status was gained painfully, against the reluctant objections of ruling elites.

For example, in the 19th century, two members of British Parliament were elected for the borough of Old Sarum by only 13 voters. Similarly, two members for Dunwich were elected by about 20 people and other so called rotten boroughs elected members of parliament to represent tiny electorates. At the same time, industrial cities Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, even Manchester, with 250,000 residents, had no MPs. Additionally, voter qualifications ranged from "any adult male" to male householders with a hearth able to boil a pot of water (the "potwallopers"). Effectively, voting was controlled by wealthy male landowners who were suspicious of and resistant to any reform.

In 1960, a public opinion poll asked Americans to prioritize issues they wanted to be addressed. Despite being the time of JFK and MLK, civil rights rated last. A college study reworded the Bill of Rights and asked citizens if they would support a law guaranteeing those already existing rights. A majority said no. Similarly, as the Bush Administration repudiated human rights and practiced torture, it was done with embarrassingly little mainstream resistance.

In the 20th century, Canada gradually moved from government by elected representatives to administration by First Ministers and their appointees. Beyond a handful, members of federal or provincial parliaments have no significant powers. They vote as instructed by the leader and face discipline for varying from the party line. This is modern representative government. The people cede authority to elected members who in turn cede authority to a party hierarchy. First Ministers share as much or as little power as they wish and the country moves toward a presidential system that is unimpaired by checks and balances

Too often, leaders gather a coterie of non-elected officials who, in return for providing political management to sustain the leaders, are provided with access to the public treasury, directly and indirectly. In British Columbia, we've seen a cadre of political fixers earn personal rewards beyond comprehension. Double, triple, quadruple dipping is apparently not outrageous or unusual. Laws and administration of laws are manipulated to benefit the favored few or those they are paid to represent. Principle becomes meaningless; truth stood on its head.

We've seen BC Rail executives paid millions either to manage a non existent railway or care for confidential files, then paid more in severance when the lucrative endeavors drag slowly to an end because even the benefactors are embarrassed by the scale of largess. The Campbell Government grants extravagant monopolies to non-operating shell companies made rich by administrative fiat obliging BC Hydro to contract for electricity at premium values.

But, BC Liberal operatives don't understand citizen discomfort. They are merely playing by the rules of the game, cheating only a little at the margins, as do their colleagues and apparatchiks in other jurisdictions.

Canadian Press reports that former Liberal Health Minister, The Honourable David Dingwall, P.C., Q.C., is about to return $350,000 paid improperly to him by Shire Biochem, the company awarded a ten year contract to supply vaccines to the federal Liberal government in 2001. The contract was worth up to a quarter of a billion dollars.

In 2005, a similar amount was recovered after Dingwall received a "success fee" from Bioniche, a separate biopharmaceutical company, which received millions of dollars from Industry Canada. Federal government rules prohibited payment of contingency fees to lobbyists.

The Honourable David Dingwall is also remembered for his time as CEO of the Canadian Mint. He left there after documents revealed that Dingwall and top aides had office expenses of more than $740,000 in 2004. That total included $130,000 in foreign and domestic travel, $14,000 in meals and $11,000 in hospitality. Despite Liberal statements that he chose to resign the Mint job, they paid Dingwall almost half a million in severance, plus pension benefits and additional expense reimbursements.

In 2005, Dingwall was called to a parliamentary committee to testify about executive expenses paid by the Royal Canadian Mint. At the hearing, Dingwall proclaimed:
"I am entitled to my entitlements."
Then, he returned to his office and billed the committee $39,789 in expenses for the appearance. Dingwall's arrogance may seem incomparable. The sad truth is that it is unexceptional, even commonplace among entitled political and bureaucratic aristocracies. Today, in circles of fixers, the wealthy Dingwall is admired as one of those intensely partisan old-boy wheeler-dealers. A man for whom public service was never about trust, probity and equity.
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2 comments:

  1. Don't know if this ties in directly but it suggests that violence is nearer the surface than we wish:

    ". . . Friday, Sarah Palin was whipping up a crowd in Tuscon on behalf of John McCain, yet another echo of 2008. Dressed in snug black leather, the woman who told her Twitter followers "Don’t retreat--RELOAD" and put vulnerable Democrats in rifle cross hairs on her Facebook page. . . "

    ReplyDelete
  2. Perhaps in addition to returning money, Dingwall could return the honorifics attached to his name.

    ReplyDelete

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