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05/19/2014 02:13 EDT | Updated 07/19/2014 05:59 EDT

In Canadian Politics, Honourable Means Showing Up

If there's one thing Canadian politicians love more than lying, ignoring problems, and wasting your money  --  it's being called "honourable."

The fussy prefix "The Honourable," or its snappy bilingual abbreviation "The Hon./L' Hon.," is a title jealously guarded by the hundreds of middle-rank politicians the Department of Heritage allows to hold it. They inscribe it on their business cards, name tags, websites, and press releases; they demand it uttered during introductions to speeches and interviews. Some have even crammed it into their Twitter handles (witness: @HonJohnBaird).

Whenever a tradition is this slavishly obeyed, odds are good its original purpose has been long forgotten.

At one time, to call a politician "honourable" was to remind him of his responsibility to the public, and obligation to adhere to a certain standard of moral decency while in office. In the modern era, alas, the political class has decided to pursue other priorities, and "The Hon." has transformed into little more than a vain, aristocratic tag of status  --  and an ironic reminder of how scant actual honour is possessed by politicians so eager to claim honourifics.

In the Victorian era of Canada's founding, to cite the principle of "honour" was to evoke a chivalrous code of conduct presumed to have its roots in the gallant, populist nobility of the Middle Ages, and ultimately the example of Christ himself. To be honourable in the Victorian sense was to be dignified, humble, respectful, restrained, and honest. It also meant keeping up appearances  --  one not only had to be an honourable gentleman, but be seen as being one.

In that sense, shame was the great enemy of honour. The expectation that all politicians would be honourable gentlemen determined to avoid shame, in turn, was seen as providing a safeguard of integrity and accountability to the British style of parliamentary government, which tends to shun stricter rules.

For a while, it worked. As a child in British Columbia I saw three back-to-back premiers resign on the mere appearance of wrongdoing, which as recently as the mid-1990s was still understood to be the only standard that mattered. Michael Harcourt, for instance, stepped aside in 1996 merely because (we'd say "merely" today, at least) a senior bureaucrat in his party was accused of stealing money from charities several years before the Premier's election. It was a scandal that never touched Harcourt directly, yet the shame of guilt-by-association was enough to force him out.

Seems almost quaint now.

Take Mayor Ford. The only reason he's still in office is because he's deliberately turned off the shame sector of his brain. Ford has committed ghastly crimes against the dignity and integrity of his town and government, yet happily clings to office despite it. The Toronto Council has no provision for impeaching a mayor, presumably because back when the rules were being written the idea that any mayor would be indecent enough to hang around after doing and saying what Ford has was simply unfathomable.

The same is true of Senators Wallin, Duffy, and Brazeau. All have been subjected to enormous public shame for abusing Senate expense accounts (which were administered, it should be noted, on the "honour system"), yet all refuse to abandon office on the pretext they've "done nothing wrong" in a strictly legal sense.

This, we may recall, was the defence first popularized by Clinton-backers during the Lewinsky mess  --  the idea that the amorphous crime of "scandal" only exists if there's a breach of the criminal code as determined by a court of law, as opposed to a breech of moral decency as determined by the court of public opinion. Such a narrow reading is not only at odds with centuries of English precedent, it offers a lawyerly-sounding justification for severing ethical misconduct from democratic accountability. Since the Senate's not even democratically accountable in the traditional sense, that doesn't leave us with much. Embrace shamelessness and you've basically gamed the system.

Even the traditional customs of holding others accountable for their lack of honour have eroded.

The parliamentary non-confidence vote, for example. Once understood as the ultimate gentlemanly technique of expressing disgust and disappointment in an unethical government, they're now simply a partisan tool to force an opportunistic election at moments of maximum partisan gain. The fact it took this long for the Ontario NDP to pull confidence from the ruling Liberals, despite enormous, undeniable scandals of billion-dollar boondoggles and Keystone Cops cover-ups, not to mention a low-thirties approval rating, was cynicism at its worst. But also utterly predictable, given that the NDP's own numbers didn't make a non-confidence vote in their best interest  --  despite being objectively in the public's.

Or how about Premier Redford in Alberta. Her shame-based resignation, triggered by revelations of massive taxpayer-financed nest-feathering (still trickling out to this day) was a rare instance of the system working as it should. But any hopes for a lasting display of dignity were promptly dashed when the ex-preem proceeded to ditch the province for a holiday in Palm Springs  --  while continuing to collect a salary in her new status as backbench MLA. She did this by opting into the Alberta parliament's vague allowance for unspecified paid leaves of absence, an easily-abused system that owes this ease of abuse, in the words of the speakers' spokesman, to the anachronistic premise that "honourable members" deserve to be taken "at their word."

When longtime parliamentarian Herb Gray died a few weeks ago, we were reminded that the man's lifetime of work had inspired Prime Minister Chretien to upgrade Gray's official title to "Right Honourable" upon retirement, an elite designation only two living non-prime ministers now enjoy. "Right Honourable" is a bizarre phrase that exists nowhere but politics; its existence signifies the sort of weird doubleplusgood-style language inflation you get when everyone is already rewarded with a lofty adjective like "honourable" simply for showing up.

It does, however signify that while any politician can be called honourable, it takes a lifetime of labour for the claim to be proven right.

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