The Corruption of Incompetence

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Candace, from Waking Up on Planet X, in person. She was in town to attend a job training conference, and we met for a gelatto late one evening. Unfortunately, between the short notice of the visit, and my own busy schedule, I was unable to organize a Waterloo-Wellington Bloggers get-together around this, but Nora was there, and she was charming.

Candace is a principled conservative from Alberta. I may be principled, but I’m not conservative. Fortunately we don’t hold these things against each other. She’s also not afraid to speak her mind and defend her opinions, so we talked politics in that rare setting (or, so it seems, sometimes) where two people holding different views managed to disagree while remaining respectful to each other.

Candace, though conservative, isn’t partisan. She has been quite willing to call the Conservative party and its supporters out when she believes that they’ve engaged in hypocrisy. At this present time, if an election were held tomorrow, she would probably vote Conservative, even if she’d have to hold her nose to do so. Her view of the Conservatives appears to line up with a view some have expressed about democracy: it is the worst party (system) imaginable, until you consider the alternatives.

Her list of complaints against Stephen Harper’s government are about as long as mine. She finds his partisanship odious (although matched by partisanship from the opposition benches). She feels his government’s handling of various controversies, from firing and/or haranguing independent watchdogs like Linda Keen and Mark Mayrand to be shameful. She feels that the partisan activity that precipitated the coalition controversy was stupid, and she feels that the treatment of Canadians in trouble abroad, particularly Abousfian Abdelrazik and Suaad Hagi Mohamud, was absolutely egregious.

Indeed, she doesn’t find much to disagree with in my own baleful assessment of the Conservative government over the past four years, except for my conclusion that the Conservatives need to be toppled in the next election as decisively as possible. In her view, as frustrating as the government of the past four years have been, it hasn’t yet reached the point the Liberals reached in 2006 when they finally met their end. More importantly, she doesn’t believe that the Liberals have learned enough from that experience to warrant their return to power.

I can sympathize with that sentiment, although here is where we have to agree to disagree. Stephen Harper’s whole approach to government, in my opinion, is as bad as, if not worse than, the lackadaisical attitude the Liberals displayed to Canadians in their last few years in power. And while I might understand if Harper’s core policies might tip the balance in their favour in Candace’s eyes, I still believe that, if this were a Liberal government, I’d still be clamouring for change. After all, as much as I supported the policies of Paul Martin, I had to admit that the time had come for his defeat, even though I felt that Stephen Harper was ill-suited to be prime minister. Even if Michael Ignatieff may make a lacklustre prime minister, if that, how much damage does Stephen Harper have to do before you move to topple the devil you know?

In my conversation with Candace, I summarized my viewpoint by saying something along the lines of, ‘Conservative incompetence is worse than Liberal corruption.” This, on reflection, was a rather stupid thing for me to say, especially since this wasn’t what I meant to say. My words make it sound like I’m excusing Liberal corruption; that funnelling money to friendly ad agencies is in some way less egregious than canning the head of an independent watchdog group due to political differences. This isn’t the case. I would say, however, that both acts are equally bad, even if bad in different ways.

Candace replied to my ill-thought-out assertion that corruption is worse than incompetence because, with corruption, the government “doesn’t care”. Which is a good point. Although, after thinking it over, I would have to say that incompetence can be a form of corruption. Either way, the public is ill served by the government — in the former case because the government is run by people in it only for themselves, and in the latter case because the government is run by idiots.

But in many of the recent cases that I’ve cited — from firing Linda Keen for shutting down Chalk River in order to perform necessary maintenance, only to have a glitch at the reactor shut things down anyway, to the shameful treatment of Mr. Abdelrazik, to shutting down parliament to avoid accountability on a number of fronts — I think you can see here a government that is run by people in it only for themselves. The only difference is, while the Liberal malfeasance was spread so wide as to be impersonal, Conservative malfeasance is most definitely personal, and that’s troubling. Under this government, if you are doing your job and the government doesn’t like the outcome of you doing your job, you are suddenly out of a job. If you criticize this government, then suddenly your whole character is in question. If you need or expect help from this government and this government doesn’t particularly like you, they will stonewall you.

But nowhere is an example of this government not caring so clear as in the case of Abousfian Abdelrazik.

I wrote a number of blogs about Mr. Abdelrazik last year (including this one). Mr. Abdelrazik is a Canadian citizen who was detained and possibly tortured for years in a Sudan prison thanks possibly to faulty intelligence that may have been given by CSIS. A year ago, the Conservative government in general and Lawrence Cannon in particular went through a shameful parade of stonewalling tactics to prevent this man — whom CSIS and the RCMP have cleared of any wrongdoing — from returning to Canada. They even claimed that the fact that Mr. Abdelrazik remained on the U.N. ‘no fly’ list tied their hands, even when United Nations representatives specifically said otherwise. It took a judicial rebuke by a Canadian court of law to force the government to live up to their obligations and allow Mr. Abdelrazik to finally come home.

The story has not ended there. Mr. Abdelrazik may be home, but because of the provisions of Canada’s “United Nations Act”, the fact that Mr. Abdelrazik remains on the U.N.’s ‘no fly’ list prevents him from working in Canada and owning a bank account. It even criminalizes the simple act of handling Mr. Abdelrazik the change from your pockets. The man has fewer rights than a convicted pedophile, and he hasn’t been convicted of a single thing.

The actions have incensed a number of Canadians, who are today engaging in a significant act of civil disobedience, raising money for Mr. Abdelrazik and directly confronting Lawrence Cannon and Stephen Harper with their actions. A telethon is being run tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern time. The fact that this act is actually illegal should incense a lot more Canadians.

The fact that Mr. Abdelrazik continues to be on a “UN no-fly” list and is thus barred from flying is one thing. It is possible that this might be outside the government’s control. However, the fact that as a result of being on that list, Mr. Abdelrazik is legally barred from earning a living, is most definitely not beyond the government’s control. And in the year following Mr. Abdelrazik’s return to Canada, the government has done less than nothing in terms of making it possible for Mr. Abdelrazik to really live here. Despite the fact that a Canadian court found that there was no basis for keeping Mr. Abdelrazik out of the country, and yet this government has made no move to change the onerous conditions that Mr. Abdelrazik lives under here at home, and indeed challenges Mr. Abdelrazik’s attempts to find redress.

So, this government thinks it’s okay that a Canadian citizen can live in this country while being legally barred from earning a living or receiving support from others. I suspect that only the fact that this form of corruption has affected just a handful of people directly is what is keeping public anger from being more widespread. After all, we were all affected by AdScam (although we didn’t really feel it since, under the Liberal government, we were in surplus and our taxes were dropping), but not many of us can imagine ourselves being arrested on spurious grounds in a foreign country, and receiving little or no help from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

However, just because we can’t imagine being as ill-served by our government as Mr. Abdelrazik shouldn’t mean that we can be lackadaisical about allowing this government’s incompetence to slip so far. If this government thinks it’s okay to ignore the rights of Canadians at home and abroad, if this government thinks it’s okay to take extraordinary measures to limit its own accountability and openness, then the potential exists for this government to fall far beyond where the Liberals had fallen in 2004.

The Conservatives were elected because Canadians were sick of the Liberal government shirking its responsibilities to serve the Canadian people. We elected the Conservatives because they promised to be more open, more accountable, and more willing to serve Canadians. So, how have they served Mr. Abdelrazik? How have they served the people in need of our medical isotopes? How have they served people looking for more openness and accountability? Ask yourself: have the Conservatives lived up to their promises? Or are they going the other way?

And what is the appropriate response to a government that promises openness and accountability but delivers neither? What judgment did we render on the Liberals in 2006? What judgment do the Conservatives deserve today?

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