Stains in the fabric of trust

But, at the level of public trust, the damage has already been done. Mr. Radwanski's contribution was to accelerate the decline of deference. Citizens are increasingly suspicious of people in political or civil authority, who all too often justify that suspicion.

The Globe and mail
March 17, 2006

Stains in the fabric of trust
John Ibbitson

It now goes without saying in Ottawa that if a journalist has lunch with a politician or public servant, the journalist — or, more precisely, the shareholders of the journalist's news organization — will pick up the cheque. Neither side wants to see that cheque appearing in a publicly scrutinized expense account.

The Radwanski effect, named after the disgraced former privacy commissioner who loved a good meal, has been bad for the restaurant trade, and for some newspaper profit margins. And it has been bad for George Radwanski; this week, the RCMP charged him with fraud and breach of trust.

Mr. Radwanski's lawyer promises a vigorous defence. But, at the level of public trust, the damage has already been done. Mr. Radwanski's contribution was to accelerate the decline of deference. Citizens are increasingly suspicious of people in political or civil authority, who all too often justify that suspicion.

On gloomy days, you wonder how we're going to run the place, if this keeps up.

Before the Second World War, few people graduated from high school. After the war, most people did. The spectacular rise in education levels created a generation of literate, restless citizens who weren't prepared to defer to the judgments of their betters. The questioning poetry of the 1950s gave way to the demonstrations of the 60s and the investigations of the 70s. Assorted scandals, Watergate being the granddaddy, discredited the political class. Blatant sensationalism discredited the media. The police had long been under suspicion; now judges were criticized for ideological bias.

In Canada, the Senate is a permanent object of ridicule. The House of Commons disgraces itself with every Question Period.

With Parliament's integrity impugned, governments have turned to royal commissions and public inquiries. The former routinely go over budget and report only after everyone involved is dead; the latter have come under increasing attack, with judges/commissioners accused of conducting vendettas.

Parliament appointed independent officers to guard the guardians. But Mr. Radwanski brought public opprobrium to the office of privacy commissioner; Ethics Commissioner Bernie Shapiro has been criticized for bias and incompetence. Even Auditor-General Sheila Fraser has come under fire, for sensationalizing her reports.

Somewhere along the way, people stopped going to Rotary, or sending their kids to Scouts. The Catholic Church was humiliated by allegations of sex abuse by priests that the church hierarchy conspired to cover up. Other denominations were discredited by a revisionist theology that seemed to believe in not much of anything.

As Fareed Zakaria has warned in The Future of Freedom, democracy only lasts one election, unless majority will is constrained by institutions that protect civil order from the rule of the mob. If those institutions become too discredited, the centre may not hold.

Populists argue that citizens themselves can fill in the void: referendums, recall and the like can sweep away mediating elites, so government truly reflects the will of the people. And who needs Rotary when we're on the Internet?

But the people show little interest in direct government. Voter turnout is declining, referendums in U.S. elections often produce contradictory results, with citizens demanding lower taxes, increased services and balanced budgets. And whatever the Internet is, it is not collegial.

At this point, the pundit is expected to propose a sweeping solution, preferably in ringing tones. But there is no sweeping solution. There are reforms — citizens assemblies, proportional representation, mandatory voting — that might be encouraged.

Probably all we can do is muddle along, hoping that not many Radwanskis await us down the road, to further strain and stain the fabric of trust.

And on less gloomy days, we can remind ourselves that nothing is going on today that wasn't going on before, except that at least now we're hearing about it.

For what it's worth.

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