If the Robocall Affair has a silver lining, my hope is that it will trigger an honest conversation about the growing and deeply troubling amorality of politics.
For years, political operatives and practitioners have justified more aggressive and dirty tactics with a shrug of the shoulders: "This is the way the game is played." Tactics replaced substance. Getting elected trumped honesty. Destroying "the enemy" overshadowed substantive debate.
In Canada, cheap politics didn't begin with Stephen Harper's Conservatives -- although they plunged them to new depths. Jean Chretien's Liberals campaigned hard against virtually everything Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives stood for -- free trade, deregulation, privatization, fiscal discipline, and the GST. Once in power, Liberals embraced it all. Chretien's control over his cabinet was as rigid as any prime minister that came before him, and the reach and power of his office was without precedent. Chretien's Liberals stayed in power by keeping the right divided, and cynically playing wedge politics.
Paul Martin ruthlessly campaigned to defeat his boss, and as he worked to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming prime minister, Martin's Liberals trained their guns against themselves.
In government, Liberals demonized and ridiculed Preston Manning, Stockwell Day, and Stephen Harper. Harper's Conservatives took a page from the Chretien-Martin playbook, and have become much more sophisticated and disciplined in the black arts than Liberals ever were.
In a lecture this week at Osgoode Hall, Michael Ignatieff said: "We attempted to deny him (Harper) standing, and now he has taken his revenge. That is where we are."
Indeed we are. Despite his best and most sincere intentions to elevate political discourse in Canada, Michael Ignatieff was sucked into a culture that swallowed him whole. The world of gladiator politics forced him to become a "strange imitation of yourself."
Blind partisanship blurs reality. You are sucked into the vortex where serious and intelligent and reasonable discourse is somehow perceived as a sign of weakness. Winning at all costs and killing "the enemy" are the true measures of political success. The national interest is far down the list.
This selfish coarseness has infected many other aspects of our culture. In a powerful op-ed in the New York Times, Greg Smith, a senior executive at Goldman Sachs, called the environment at the firm "as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it."
He said that the "interests of the client continue to be sidelined. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm you will be promoted into a position of influence."
The same is true of political operatives and their bosses, those elected to represent us. "Integrity? It is eroding," Smith wrote. "Do people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client's goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact."
Sounds a lot like modern politics in Canada. The national interest is rarely, if ever, the predominant concern. Political calculations are. There is nothing really new in all of this. But in the last few years the debasement of our politics has intensified and accelerated.
Smith's solution to the problem he sees at Goldman Sachs and throughout Wall Street should also be applied to politicians and their agents. He says: "Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons."
Let us hope -- no, demand -- that our parliamentarians start doing what we pay them to do: Put Canada first.