November doesn’t seem to be shaping up to be a great month for politicians in positions of power either side of the Canadian/American border. South of the border there’s the latest version of “gate” happening (can someone please tell me why the press everywhere have started adding gate to every scandal: it was only called Watergate because it was the name of the damned hotel idiots) and some poor schmuck named Libby pulling an Oliver North and falling on his sword to protect his bosses.
In Canada we have something called the Gomery inquiry. Not that this dude Gomery has done anything wrong, he’s just the judge who was appointed to investigate the supposed misdeeds of the previous government. It seems that back in 1995 the federal Liberal party as part of their campaign to defeat the separatist referendum in Quebec had funnelled tax payer money into more than just advertising campaigns. Somehow a lot of money ended up being “donated” unofficially back to the Liberal party by the companies hired to create the pro-Canada ads.
The worst thing about all these political scandals is the fall out that accompanies each one. Every time one of these things surface, no matter how inconsequential or horrible they might be, they have the same result. The idea of public service takes a hit from which it will never recover.
There are many people out there who think of government as a bad thing for a variety of reasons; some legitimate, some politically motivated, and some just paranoia. These scandals, real or otherwise simply add fuel to their fire. Look, they can say, pointing at all aspects of the cases in question. They’re all equally corrupt. We should get rid of the lot of them.
I sometimes think of people who go to work in the government as public servants as being similar to cops. One hopes that the majority of people who decide to become police officers do so out of a genuine desire to make a difference: to try and help people. Sure there are some who are going to be in it for the power tripping opportunities that the job offers, but they are not the majority.
The whole concept of public service seems to have gone right out the window. It used to be that people who wanted to make a difference in society would go to work for governments so that they could help shape policies that would create a better world, or at least take a stab at improving the lives of their fellow citizens.
Economists, agricultural specialists, health care workers, engineers, architects and many other professions saw nothing wrong in working for the government. It made you feel like you were contributing; giving back to the society that had given you the opportunity to become what you were. That may sound naïve and corny to some of you, especially in this cynical age, but people actually used to believe that.
Of course most readers will scoff at that; but there was a time when people actually felt that helping others was more important than personal gain or the accumulation of material goods and they thought they could best fulfill that by working for the government. Times certainly have changed haven’t they?
My wife and I have a very sweet friend who is very much of that mould. She’s working towards becoming a lawyer and then writing the Canadian Civil Service exam and working for the government. It’s actually lovely to see, someone who still believes that she can serve the people of her country and make a difference. (Of course it’s in her blood, a great uncle of hers helped develop the idea of public housing back in World War two)
But how many people out there would choose to work in government for those reasons anymore. Most of them probably see it as either just a job, or the means to establishing themselves until they can get a job in the private sector that pays enough so they can buy their first BMW, or whatever the upwardly mobile car of the week is now.
I know that attitude took its first major hit in the United States during the Viet Nam war, where the administrations were seen as working against the will of a lot of young people. Watergate changed everything, and made people re examine the whole idea of working for the government. How could one work for something in good conscience that acted like that?
Ironically, the people who called for less government were the ones responsible for an upsurge in interest in the public service. When Regan came into power in the U.S. there were plenty of people excited enough by the concepts espoused by his team that they were eager to try and help create the new world he was preaching. But that brief resurgence didn’t even last out his presidency with people dismayed by what was done in order to conduct a covert war. The Iran/ Contra mess dashed a lot of hopes and illusions among the starry eyed and idealistic.
Is it any wonder that so many special interest lobby groups have sprung up since that time? Governments have proven themselves inept at serving the people, so people have set themselves up to try and ensure their issues are taken care of.
Although some might say that this is a good thing, I’m not certain for a couple of reasons. There’s the obvious one that the groups with the most money and the better connections are going to have more influence on policy, resulting in an unbalanced agenda for the government.
But he real problem is the vacuum that has been created by having no direction from a federal government. The result has been increased polarization amongst the populations of countries. With so many individual groups advocating differing policies with such conviction there is no way that a country can come to any sort of consensus on which direction it should move in.
A central government that worked properly would negate the necessity for the majority of lobbyists because they would be striving to find solutions for the problems of the country based on policy proposals put forward by the people working for them. Instead of that, we have people who are as variable as wind vanes when it comes to providing direction. Their only concern seems to be what they need to do to be re elected. It’s always fun to watch them twisting in the wind when three opinion polls on the same subject give three different results.
I seem to have gone all over the place here, but reading about these recent scandals got me thinking about people’s perceptions of government and how they’ve changed over the years. What’s sad and just a little scary is how wide ranging the fall out has been, and how it has effected our means of governance to a far greater extent than most people realize
There are probably still quite a few people like the friend I mentioned earlier who see a career in public service as an important task, but she is among a minority. More and more the best and the brightest are being lured elsewhere; repulsed by the ongoing rot they see running deeper and deeper in the system.
Perhaps the age of federalism is really over, and we will become a series of single-issue fiefdoms. This might appeal to some people, especially those who will be in charge, but what of the people whose lives are complex enough that there’s not just one answer to their question?
The thing about real federalism is that it allows for a pluralistic society. How much freedom of thought is there really going to be in a bunch of single-issue societies? I’m not really interested in finding out.