By Trevor Busch
In yet one more unfortunate example of a government figure unable or unwilling to remove their lips from a purplish public nipple, former governor general Adrienne Clarkson has landed herself in the sights of Joe Taxpayer over exorbitant annual expense claims even though it’s now been 13 years after she officially left office.
This kind of criticism is usually reserved for Canada’s other whipping boy of the moral majority, the Senate. This appointed anachronism from a bygone era can hardly scrape through a calendar year without some new scandal emerging about its membership. Stacked to the rafters with failed political hacks, defeated candidates, geriatric party warriors and hell-for-leather campaigners like a lucrative retirement home for the nation’s political dustbin, the Senate isn’t winning any popularity contests these days.
That’s difficult when the vast majority of the public views you as corrupted hogs wallowing up to the public trough to immerse your filthy trotters in rivers of taxpayer cash. What’s even more galling for the average citizen is most can’t really discern a reliable purpose for the institution beyond wine-and-cheese receptions for political senior citizens, or a somewhat more formal coffee-row gab fest about the issues of the day.
The Senate would suggest that it is a “sober second look” at what the madcap — and apparently frequently intoxicated — radicals down in the House of Commons are coming up with. Which means, of course — and not surprisingly for the now-ancient Westminster Model that our parliamentary system is based on — that it is a institutionalized example of a class system still hard at work here in the 21st century. Look no further than the U.K.’s House of Lords, the Canadian Senate’s counterpart — the name alone speaks volumes about its social origins.
Upper houses were once where most of the power resided in early examples of parliamentary systems, but that hasn’t been the case for a long time now in most modern incarnations. The Fathers of Confederation that selected our current system of government back in 1867 were just as worried about the Great Unwashed unduly infecting their princely system with their boorish ideas, uncouth ramblings, radical leanings and uneducated patterns of speech. The Senate was created in part as a check against this radicalized cabal of anarcho-capitalist hot-heads, recognizable to us today as the average Canadian voter rather than the ballot-box ghouls many contemporaries apparently thought they were.
So while the Senate’s continued existence in Canadian society owes much of its origins to fear of the masses, in lock-step with this unfortunate hysteria came the 19th century’s emphasis on social Darwinism. This is the idea that some groups, and some people — namely those currently in the ruling classes, how surprising — are genetically and socially superior at ruling over all us poor, uneducated peasants. There were deep shades of this kind of philosophy incorporated into almost every political system created in the 19th century, and our Red Chamber was no exception. Although it was largely toothless being an unelected and appointed upper house, it still held powers that allowed it to nose around in legislation passed by the House of Commons, and even to return or reject that legislation if it didn’t align enough with a set of values most closely associated with the upper crust of society.
Which shouldn’t be all that surprising. Even the American system of government — the supposed homeland of freedom and democracy — still employs a deeply undemocratic system of electoral college votes which can sometimes result in one candidate winning the popular vote but losing an election. This system was installed for some of the same reasons and along the very same lines as our own Senate — ruling classes suspicious or fearful of vesting too much power in the hands of lower classes, or lower houses.
Canada’s system of governor generals is another holdover from an even older system of politics: absolute monarchy. And while the Queen’s representative in Canada has some important duties — and can even leave the nation holding their political breath during a constitutional crisis or after a vote of non-confidence in the House of Commons — these duties are almost exclusively ceremonial and do little or nothing to advance the interests of the nation, or some would argue justify their lofty salaries or apparently out-of-hand expense claims.
Remarkably considering the numbers Clarkson has been charging the Canadian taxpayer annually — according to some reports as much as the program’s annual spending limit of $206,000 — she doesn’t appear to have broken any rules. Which is why a “thorough review” of Rideau Hall’s lifetime expense program for former governor generals should come as welcome news to Canadians squeezed incessantly for every tax dollar.
According to National Post sources, Clarkson has also been the strongest opponent of reforming the program and has resisted the possibility of her expenses being revealed publicly. Once you leap aboard the public-expense bandwagon, is it really surprising to any of us that fiscal responsibility goes out the window if there’s no accountability? How many would opt for the $80 bottle of wine instead of the $800 at your high-class restaurant if Joe Mustard-Stain is never any wiser and is footing the bill anyway? Would you choose the meatloaf over the steak and lobster soirée?
For most of us — if we’re being truly honest with ourselves — probably not. Which is why accountability and transparency is so vital in modern government — at the federal, provincial and municipal levels — if we’re to save people from themselves, for lack of a better phrase. Breezing through a cool $100,000 in expenses on the back of the taxpayer might seem like a largely victimless crime if there’s no accountability, no one to find out why you spent $10,000 on limousine services rather than a taxi cab or $20,000 on flying first class when you could have gone coach. It’s little wonder Clarkson has been jealously guarding a detailed breakdown of these expenses being provided to the Canadian public.
One suspects some of these claims will be proven willfully gratuitous or inappropriate.
If they weren’t, then why the smoke and mirrors routine? Why not immediately release your entire expense history and satisfy the public’s allegations against you? Because there’s an axiom in life as well as journalism: where there is smoke there’s fire.
And the floorboards must really be heating up around Adrienne Clarkson.