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Media Bites: Amusing Headlines Make Bad Politicians

05/27/2013 12:27 EDT | Updated 07/27/2013 05:12 EDT
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TORONTO, ON - MAY 17: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, at the PFLAG flag raising. The Mayor faces allegations that their is a video which he reportedly appears to be smoking crack cocaine at City Hall. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Given the amount of scandal swirling around both sides of the border these days, you can be excused for trying to learn a lesson.

Certainly the American conclusion seems obvious enough. President Obama's recent trio of troubles, the Benghazi bungling, IRS intrigue, and AP awfulness, are clearly united by a common theme of executive branch overreach. An overextended, busybody government is worrying too much about too many things that aren't its business, and going too far with those that are. A Tea Party conspiracy theory come to life, in the words of Jon Stewart.

Canada's big two, however -- Duffygate and Fordgate -- don't appear to have nearly enough in common to weave an equally obvious thematic narrative.

Both involve conservative politicians, but neither Mayor Ford nor Senator Duffy's troubles are particularly ideological. The men are members of different levels of government (municipal versus federal) as well as different branches (executive versus legislative). And as far as I know, no one's yet blamed Senator Duffy's "confusion" over his province of residence in on a crack high.

The only commonality linking the two men and their scandals, in fact, is a shared theme of public accountability -- specifically, their complete lack of it. The fact that both guys remain in office to this day (and could easily remain for years) exposes one of the worst structural deficiencies of the entire Canadian political system: it's way too hard to fire bad politicians.

The National Post ran one of its trademark cute little Q and A columns the other day on the subject of possibly impeaching Mayor Ford over his alleged drug use. The A's were depressing.

It "is hard, verging on impossible" to drive a mayor out of office in Toronto's political system, the paper concluded, since the city lacks any effective recall or removal mechanisms to employ. Yes, he wasalmost booted from office earlier this year, but only because he broke a single weirdly specific bylaw that exclusively punishes politicians who violate municipal conflict of interest regulations. There's no instant disqualifier for something as piddling as a criminal charge. In short, sayeth the Post, "mayoral elections are more or less final, until the next one."

Similar logic governs the Canadian Senate -- only without the elections. Though the RCMP is now officially sniffing around the upper chamber's so-called "expense" (read; theft) scandal, in the event criminal charges are someday filed against Duffy and friends, don't expect much to happen. The Constitution holds that senators can only be impeached by their colleagues following a full conviction for an "infamous crime," which fresher legislation has clarified to mean an "indictable offense." As in, something more serious than what Senator Brazeau -- who allegedly chocked, groped, and punched his girlfriend before kicking her down the stairs -- has been charged with.

Not to single out senators, of course. Removing an MP from office is an even steeper climb. As the CBC passive-aggressively noted last year during the midst of one of those sad little MP recall petitions that pop up every so often, "once a person is elected to the House of Commons, there are no constitutional provisions to have them removed from office."

Or how about turfing a prime minister? Canine teeth are easier to pull.

Unlike in Britain, the Canadian cabinet can't stage a Thatcher-in-1990-style coup to depose a bad boss, nor can our political parties unseat their leader at any time other than a party convention, which only happen once every two years. Since the office of the prime minister is barely even acknowledged in the national constitution, Canada's system likewise lacks any process for trying and ejecting a Canadian ruler who commits "high crimes and misdemeanours," unlike U.S. presidents. The only "official" way to depose a PM at all is through the trusty non-confidence vote -- and as we've learned from recent history, those are nothing a little prorogation can't overcome.

And don't forget the fellow who rubber-stamps prorogations in the first place! The governor general of Canada is perhaps the single least accountable political office of any major western democracy. When Michaelle Jean opted in 2008 to prolong the life of the Harper government rather than install an ramshackle coalition regime, she didn't so much as release a public statement justifying her exercise of this tremendous power, and still basically hasn't, citing only the archaic precedent that royal decision-making should be insulated from vulgar public scrutiny.

And of course the only person possessing the authority to fire a governor general is the PM himself, the individual with the single greatest vested interest in opposing the GG's powers. (In Australia, they call this the principle of "mutually assured dismissal" and it's why governor generals never actually do anything).

The remedies to all this aren't hard. Senators and governor generals should be elected; prime ministers, mayors, and MPs should face some process for being impeached, either by legislative vote, public recall, or, ideally, both. When true malfeasance has been found, pensions should be stripped, the holding of future offices banned -- none of this paid leave of absence nonsense.

The alternative is the status quo: a political system that provides every incentive for its worst-behaved characters to simply run out the clock on their scandals, knowing full well that the taxpayers funding their various breakdowns have zero recourse to insist otherwise.

It might make for amusing headlines, but it's no way to run a country.

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