12/12/2011 12:21 EST | Updated 02/10/2012 05:12 EST

Tony Clement's Punishment Is the Scandal

Last month, the RCMP announced that it had found no basis for further investigation of Treasury Board President Tony Clement.

In 2010, a former Liberal MP had asked the RCMP to examine spending in Tony Clement's Muskoka riding. The former MP claimed that the spending on projects to ready Muskoka for the G8 summit somehow violated the law.

Over seven months, the RCMP reviewed the ex MP's charges. The RCMP found the charges groundless and have dropped the case.

Story over?

Maybe yes. But maybe not. The former MP herself, Marlene Jennings, previously the representative of the Quebec riding of Notre Dame de Grace-Lachine, will likely fade from public view. Yet she has bequeathed Canadian politics an ugly legacy -- unless Canadians act promptly and decisively to quash and repudiate that legacy.

One of the most impressive differences between Canadian and U.S. politics is that Canadians are much more reluctant to use criminal law as a tool of politics.

Make no mistake: Canadians despise corruption and expect legal action against those guilty of corruption.

But until the Jennings action, Canada maintained an effective distinction between bribe-taking and, say, locating a canoe museum in the riding of the prime minister of the day.

Marlene Jennings' contribution to Canadian political history was an attempt to blur that distinction: to make it a crime not to take money for your own use, but to get a project for your constituency.

Think of it this way: The Harper government's anti-recession fiscal stimulus contained a total of some 32,000 individual spending items. The items included a new subway line for Toronto and modernization of facilities at Canadian Forces Base Halifax. Toronto and Halifax are not exactly Conservative strongholds. Still, there is data suggesting that Conservative constituencies on average received more infrastructure spending than non-Conservative. (Just as Liberal constituencies did best in the Chretien years.)

One of those infrastructure items I happen to know well: the renovation of the VIA rail station in Belleville, Ontario. Belleville is represented by a Conservative MP, Daryl Kramp. Did MP Kramp advocate the case of the Belleville train station? If so, did he commit a crime?

It seems crazy to think so. Or anyway -- it did.

Happily for Mr. Kramp and for Tony Clement, the RCMP has agreed: an MP seeking projects for his or her constituency will remain decriminalized.

But the important thing to understand about these investigations is that even if the accused person prevails, the accused person still loses. The process is the punishment.

In a case like this in the United States, back in the 1980s, President Reagan's former Secretary of Labor, Ray Donovan, was indicted and prosecuted on corruption charges. The jury acquitted the former secretary on every count. When it was all over, and Donovan was told he was free to go, he plaintively asked, "And which office do I go to, to get my reputation back?"

Corruption is a standing danger in politics, to be vigilantly monitored and fiercely denounced. At the same time, false allegations of corruption can be very nearly as dangerous to democracy as corruption itself.

When scandal charges are hurled promiscuously, the public soon becomes inured to scandal. "Oh, that's just the way they talk," the public thinks -- and soon it stops listening altogether to all corruption accusations, the genuine as well as the bogus. Those who teach the public to shrug at corruption allegations are the genuine crook's best friends.

The honest politician does not shrug -- and of all the hundreds of politicians I've known in my life, I've never met a politician more honest than Tony Clement, a friend of 25 years' standing. The honest politician suffers from an attack on his reputation in a way that few people outside politics can imagine or understand.

But the outrage in the Jennings' accusation is not the attack on Clement. It's the attack on the norms of the Canadian political system. Possibly -- probably -- the complaint will prove a squib, a freak, a forgotten incident. But it could also prove a premonition, a harbinger, a warning of something new in Canadian public life.

In which case, this closed case may prove a very significant event -- and Marlene Jennings' otherwise not very notable political career will have culminated in one genuine if sinister achievement: Canadians will remember her as the person who imported American-style politics of personal destruction into the Canadian political ecology.