Duffy, China, Syria: Weighing the Scales of Scandal

Published in the Toronto Star, May 21, 2013

Mike Duffy, China, Syria: one of these things is not like the others. For starters, only the first (along with the inimitable mayor of Toronto) has riveted the attention of most Canadians in recent days. And for those already inclined toward misgivings about the Harper government, only the unfolding Duffy scandal has seemed to provide fresh reason for that view. You might well think that any disservice to Canadians from Ottawa this week was firmly on the domestic side of the ledger.

But even as the Duffy mess provokes outrage and serial resignations, it’s worth stepping back to get perspective on comparative scandals and harms. Titillating as it all is, there’s nothing greatly new or harmful to Canada’s welfare here. Every government, of whatever political stripe, will likely include some members whose ethics fare poorly in the face of opportunities for personal enrichment; every leader’s staff will likely make dubious moves to limit potential embarrassment. It’s unhelpful to the public’s trust in democracy when such incidents come to light, so they’re rightly condemned and the guilty parties hustled off the scene.

In the end, it’s the failures at policy, not politics, that count most.

And yet. When the ledger of the Harper government is tallied up, this sort of scandal might be the reason for its demise, but it won’t by a long shot be the biggest blot on its record. That dishonour will consist in the way this government, to an extent unmatched in Canada’s recent history, has treated public policy as a sphere for giving partisan agendas free rein and nuanced understanding the back of the hand. That tendency brings egregious costs in many ways – not least in global affairs, where we’re losing opportunities for promoting an even moderately sophisticated popular understanding of the challenges facing us, as well as chances for having constructive influence on them.

What’s been happening on the China and Syria fronts this week while Canadians’ attention has been otherwise diverted? Well, Foreign Policy has published an arresting article sketching out the emerging shape of China-U.S. relations. According to author Noah Feldman, we’re seeing a “Cool War” utterly unlike previous superpower rivalries, in which a “classic struggle for power between two countries is unfolding at the same time that economic cooperation between them is becoming deeper and more fundamental.”

Can Canada do anything to influence how this superpower struggle plays out, for better or worse? Not really. But understanding what’s going on here, and how it will affect us, couldn’t matter more. And no one in this government, from the prime minister on down, is remotely likely to think about discussing such matters with Canadians (or their own caucus, for that matter). It’s not the Harper way to present different perspectives on a complex issue; disparaging complexity as “committing sociology” (or “committing political science,” in this case) is more its style.

On the Syria front, the scale of deaths and atrocities could hardly be worse; and there’s a real threat of spreading regional conflict. Hardly any viable options for outside intervention are evident. Mostly what’s left to do until things shift is to try to understand what’s happened. And look: Tom Friedman’s New York Times column this week explores how water shortages in Syria, and the Assad regime’s indifference to drought-stricken farmers, politicized a large section of the population to revolt against the government.

A horrific civil, and incipiently regional, war grounded partially in drought and desertification – ringing any bells? Yes, that’s the issue on which Canada saw fit to walk away from global research and policy partnership, in the form of the UN convention that the Harper government labelled a “talkshop.” Canada’s ongoing membership in the convention wouldn’t make the Syrian conflict any better. But by showing contempt for the very idea of collective global action on this policy front, the government has guaranteed Canada’s non-participation in finding solutions that might avert water-related conflicts to come.

Bringing together Duffy, China and Syria isn’t a matter of connecting the dots in an indictment of the Harper government’s record. They’re entirely different matters that affect Canadians in different ways. But given the week that’s unfolded in Canadian politics, it’s important to keep perspective on the real legacies of governments, despite the ebbs and flows of scandal. In the end, it’s the failures at policy, not politics, that count most.

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