Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Race

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check (Saturday June 3, 2006 at 8:21 pm)

It’s not that there aren’t any rules for the campaign to replace Paul Martin as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. There are. It’s just that, by themselves, rules aren’t enough.

Discipline and rules aren’t always about the particular taboo expressed. “Don’t bother me when I’m on the phone” sure sounds like a rule, but it’s really something more along the lines of “Don’t bother me when I’m on the phone unless there’s something more important than the phone call I’m on which I must know about because it’s of sufficient urgency that waiting would be cause personal difficulty for me or significantly enough personal difficulty for you that I’m moved to privilege it above my own business.” Which, as is clear, isn’t the rule it looks like on the surface.

The real rule is: “Don’t privilege your conerns above others’ unless you’re sure that they would, too.” Which is a rule of a kind, but has something else in it: an appreciation of what is and is not acceptable to others.

Just how we get to that appreciation is the hard part. It’s rarely articulated precisely and often changes from time to time. It is, more or less, unexpressable as a rule, which is why it isn’t. It’s expressed as a lengthy series of superficial rules and lessons which, in effect, amount to the difference between social awkwardness and acceptance.

And this is true of more than rules for children. Consider the following rules:

151. (1) An elector shall, after receiving a ballot,
(a) proceed directly to the voting compartment;
(c) fold the ballot as instructed by the deputy returning officer; and
(d) return the ballot to the deputy returning officer.
Return of ballot
(2) The deputy returning officer shall, on receiving the ballot from the elector,
(a) without unfolding the ballot, verify that it is the same one that was handed to the elector by examining its serial number and the initials on it;
(b) remove and destroy the counterfoil in full view of the elector and all other persons present; and
(c) return the ballot to the elector to deposit in the ballot box or, at the elector’s request, deposit it in the ballot box.
(2) Except as provided by this Act, no elector shall
(a) on entering the polling station and before receiving a ballot, openly declare for whom the elector intends to vote;
(b) show his or her ballot, when marked, so as to allow the name of the candidate for whom the elector has voted to be known; or
(c) before leaving the polling station, openly declare for whom the elector has voted.
(3) No deputy returning officer shall
(b) place on any ballot any writing, number or mark, with intent that the elector to whom the ballot is to be, or has been, given may be identified.

All of which amount, at first blush, to the following rule:

  • No one can know how a given person voted.

Which is really nothing more than the following rule:

  • No one can confirm another’s vote so as to be able to contract for it.

Which really means:

  • No one can offer some payment in exchange for someone’s vote.

Which helps to explain some people’s reaction to concrete policy proposals like tax rebates and childcare spaces. It’s not that these things are against the rules. They’re just against that unspoken principle to which the rules point. It’s what, in a less precise way, is often referred to as the “spirit” of the law (no, not that). And the spirit is becoming more wraithlike, it seems.

This week saw some exciting ghostbusting activity, centred on the campaign of erstwhile Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Joe Volpe. It seems three precocious youngsters each decided to make the maximum donation allowed by law, $5,400, to his leadership campaign.

It just so happened that the children in question were those of a senior executive who also donated the maximum amount. It just so happened that the executive works for a company many of whose senior executives also each donated the maximum amount. It also just so happened that many members of those senior executives’ immediate families also each donated the maximum amount.

It’s almost as if someone wanted to get around the individual donation limits by having a much larger donation made through a group of closely-related people.

Well, if you think so: prove it.

It’s never clear whether so-called “white collar” offences are harder to prove because they’re rarely committed or because the corpus delicti isn’t material (no, not material, material). Of course, the question of whether that is what’s happened here isn’t material (other way ’round this time), though it is what NDP MP Pat Martin has asked the authorities to investigate.

The problem is the response. While Volpe’s team was technically correct to say that they hadn’t broken any rules by accepting those donations, they clearly did something which at least looks like breaking the real rule behind the written rules: that no one be able to disproportionately influence a political candidate. While independent donations aren’t really a major concern, that latter point is, and as possible as it may be that three siblings under fifteen independently made maximal donations to the same candidate their parents were supporting, it’s just not that likely.

But again, even if that is the case, it goes against the real rule, which is to protect the general public from any particular group gaining control of a public figure (and if a nuclear family isn’t a group, I’m not sure what is). The fact that Volpe’s team has returned the money while continuing to deny wrongdoing is farcical. If it wasn’t wrong to do it, then there wasn’t any reason to retract. That it wasn’t an offence doesn’t preclude its being a political mistake, which is no less wrong and, potentially, carries much higher costs.

And those costs are not confined to his own camp. The affair reflects poorly on the Liberal Party as a whole, not only because of his identification with the party, but because of the party’s official response:

“Elections Canada regulates contributions to leadership candidates. The Liberal Party does not,” Mr. MacKinnon said.

Which is interesting, because Elections Canada regulates other things, too, like campaign expenses for leadership candidates. And the Liberal Party isn’t shying away from regulating that:

Second, we have closed all loopholes and eliminated exemptions on candidate spending to fully align campaign oversight with the Canada Elections Act. In other words, this means that our spending limit will be retroactive and include spending prior to the formal call of the convention.

Why one and not the other, when both are investigable and enforceable by Elections Canada? In truth, the donation process is one of the most politically charged parts of the campaign, and party oversight could easily give rise to allegations of favoritism or abuse of central institutions to disadvantage or advantage particular candidates.

But in the real world, the effect is that the Liberal Party doesn’t seem to be concerned about the real rules, which everyone innately understands, even if they can’t express them clearly. And that makes them guilty of violating the spirit of the law. The spoof website and foolish inter-campaign brouhaha which have followed add little but prolonged public attention to the party’s half-committment to the rules.

Like an ill-bred child, the party, like Joe Volpe’s campaign, looks anti-social. It proves unable to find its way in a world of unspoken rules and boundaries. Either it pushes too far and oversteps its rights or withdraws where it should take action and fails to make amends. Either way, it transgresses the spirit of the game it’s playing, and will pay for it.

But such a result is to be expected where discipline has been abandoned. The party was perfectly willing to ignore its constitution and devise ad hoc rules for what should have been regular conventions when, in 2000 and 2002, the leadership question was politically inconvenient for top brass. Rules for the distribution of membership forms have also been imposed on the fly, and even if not intended to advantage particular candidates, doing so unquestionably distorts the result. Party leadership has, on at least one occasion, asserted that a clause of its constitution could be ignored on the grounds that it contradicted another clause (as it happens, the two were concurrent conditions, one of which could not be fulfilled because it had already been broken).

Lack of discipline has its effect — the loss of respect for the spirit of the rules. After all, if you can change them or sophistrate them out of existence, how important can they be?

And that’s what the whole affair shows, to disadvantage. A party undisciplined is a party spoiled.

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