Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Bribery’s Just Another Word For. . .

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections (Saturday January 14, 2006 at 8:43 pm)


Sounds so much better, doesn’t it? Is there really any difference?

What’s the real problem with offering a strong opponent a reason to help you instead of fighting? Isn’t that just a horse-trade of a different colour?

Casual observers might think that Liberal candidate David Oliver’s job offer to his NDP rival parallels the recent troubles of a BC Tory candidate.


  • Both kept something they were doing secret
  • Both secrets were exposed
  • Both exposes came within the same two days
  • Both party leaders have declared that the offenders won’t be allowed to sit in caucus if they win (well, sort of in the Tory case — see here)

So very much in common, but all completely superficial. The differences run deeper:

  • The Tory candidate concealed a quasi-criminal offence
  • The Liberal candidate concealed a legal bit of politicking

The cold Wonk knows there are those who would take offence at the suggestion that bribing an opponent to take a dive isn’t a big deal. But let’s look at this seriously: the NDP candidate had a duty to his party, not to the public. Trying to persuade him to break faith with his party just isn’t the same thing as violating a duty to the public, which, as the Wonk’s pointed out, is just what the Tory candidate has done, which is difference two:

  • The Tory candidate showed that he would break his public duty when it advantaged him
  • The Liberal candidate showed that he would persuade others to break their private duties when it advantaged him

We might not like the second one any more, but we certainly can’t say it’s the same thing. After all, isn’t persuasion to break private duties just what the government did in support of its budget when it persuaded Belinda Stronach to cross the floor?

Sure, (now) Minister Stronach claimed that she chose to cross. But if that were true, why would she have been made a Minister? Her political reputation? If she came freely, what bargaining power could she possibly have had?

Let’s try this scenario for a moment. You’re the Prime Minister of a minority government. A well-known and senior member (and one-time leadership candidate) of the opposition approaches you before a crucial vote and says that she can no longer support her own party, ideologically, and wants to join yours. Do you:

  • Immediately give her a Ministerial portfolio?
  • Give her a frontbench seat?
  • Give her a backbench seat and a portfolio some months later in a cabinet reshufle?

If you chose option 3, congratulate yourself. You’ve shown your opponents up dramatically — someone was willing to abandon their front ranks to become your mere footsoldier. The later shuffle will come along well after the initial shocks pass, and once the issue is passe (and the press favorable to your party), won’t make her look like an opportunist, either. Choosing option 1 might look like an honest expression of gratitude, but is that really the basis on which a shrewd operator like yourself gives out scarce political posts? Especially if it detracts from the recipient’s aura of sincerity. . .

If you don’t have options 2 and 3, then one thing is clear: she didn’t cross on principle.

In that event, it doesn’t matter whether she asked for a reward or you offered one. Two things are true:

  • She was willing to break her private duty for a reward
  • You were willing to offer a reward for her to break her private duty

And these are the offences we’re dealing with in the Liberal candidate’s case. Well, one of them, anyway.

When one party isn’t willing, the offence is obvious. Otherwise, it’s harder to spot; but we can’t be too hard on people for doing this kind of thing. It happens all the time in negotiations: one side offers the other an inducement to compromise one of their pledges.

The Prime Minister wants to get high and mighty on the issue:

“I have zero tolerance for that kind of thing, I acted, and that person is no longer a candidate for the Liberal party,” he said.

But isn’t this exactly what he did in changing the budget to secure NDP support for the measure? Offering inducements for the NDP to prefer some of their pledges and forego others?

Isn’t this what happened with Belinda Stronach?

Isn’t this, in all honesty, something to be expected in the process of political negotiations? Why is it that we can tolerate it when we can pretend it isn’t happening, but can’t tolerate it when it’s laid bare before us? Something about sausage springs to mind. . .

So if the offer isn’t a real problem, what is? It’s a clever strategic manouevre, if you pull it off. . .

No, it’s not that he got found out. It’s what that implies. For all the prudence in dealmaking, the revelation of deals like this makes the offeror look weak; and the Liberals can’t afford admissions of vulnerability while they’re behind in the polls. There is something left to lose, after all. Making your own party look weak is a serious offence, and when the other propsective party to the transaction won’t play ball, there’s no way to pretend that it’s anything other than weakness. That’s enough to require punishment, even if Paul Martin might wish the punishment could involve less self-sacrifice. After all, the offence may show weakness, but it also shows loyalty, if little judgement.

Of course the public won’t see much difference. A superficial similarity to Steven Harper’s troubles the day before demands a superficially similar response, whether deserved or not. There might be important distinctions to draw, but politics is no place to hone fine distinctions — just to pity those cut upon their edges.

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