Thursday, November 29, 2012

Two Robs Don't Make a Right

Anyone paying much attention to the news lately is probably aware that Rob Ford, the Mayor of Canada's largest city, Toronto, was kicked out of office by a superior court judge this week after violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest rules. There has been a lot of rhetoric in the media about the seriousness of the conflict itself, or the fact that a judge chose to remove a democratically elected official, but the heart of the argument is that Rob Ford contravened the conflict of interest rules, and the punishment is mandatory removal from office.

However, Ford is hardly the first Canadian politician to make some seriously dubious ethical decisions, on the record. Another famous Canadian politician named Rob, Sir Robert Laird Borden, did something far, far worse: he rigged an election. And yet Borden is remembered largely as a Canadian hero. There's a high school near me that is named in his honour. So why is Borden a hero and Ford a villain? Are we killing Rob Ford over a minor offence, or are we misjudging Borden's legacy?

You probably know the story of Ford by now. Prior to being elected Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford was an outspoken city councillor. During his tenure as councillor, Ford raised around $3000 for his personal charity using city letterhead. That was a no-no, so Ford was ordered to return the money. City council had a vote on whether to enforce the judgement, and decided not to. That was all fine, it was really a minor issue and normal procedure. Here's where things get sticky for Ford. First of all, he showed up at the council vote on whether to enforce the judgement, and spoke on his own behalf, stating that he would have to pay the money out of pocket because it had already been spent, and he didn't feel that was right. That's strike one.

Then, Ford made the monumentally stupid decision to vote as a city councillor, on whether he should be made to pay the money out of pocket. That's strike two.

Then, in court Ford claimed he hadn't read the councillor's handbook, didn't know the conflict of interest rules, and claimed that his voting on the issue did not represent a conflict of interest in his opinion. That's strike three, and the judge called him out.

Regardless of whether he read the rules or not, most people know that voting on a measure that impacts you significantly and directly is a conflict of interest. That's pure common sense. There is no way around the fact that Ford voted on an issue in which he had a conflict of interest, which has serious ethical implications even if it wasn't explicitly banned by law in Ontario. However, what is perhaps even more horrifying is the notion that Ford didn't even read bother to read such important rules when he took office. If he isn't aware of that rule, what other ethical or legal obligations might he be ignoring?

In the past week I've heard a lot of people argue that removing him from office was unjust because it wasn't very much money, or because it was for kids, or because he was raising it for charity. These are all red herrings. The decision had nothing to do with the amount of money, how it was raised, or why it was raised. It had nothing to do with the initial judgement that Ford must repay the money. The problem is that Ford spoke on and voted on a measure that affected him directly and financially, full stop. In Ontario, the punishment for such actions is removal from office. Since Ford made it clear he was wilfully ignorant of the law, the judge had no other choice.

You can make your own judgements on Ford and his effectiveness as Mayor. Personally, I'm not a fan at all, but that is certainly up for debate, unlike his violation of the conflict of interest rules. Now that I have severely buried the lede, however, I can move on to the second player in this contextual comparison. I can now begin to assail the character of one of Canada's heroes.

Sir Robert Laird Borden was the eighth Prime Minister of Canada, following Sir Wilfrid Laurier, but most people can only really name three who came before him. Abbott, Thompson, Bowell, and Tupper all served briefly following the death of Sir John A. Macdonald but their terms as Prime Minister are largely footnotes in Canadian history texts.

Borden was a highly respected Nova Scotian lawyer before being elected as an MP for the Conservative party in 1896. In 1901 he was named leader of the party, and in 1911 his party defeated Laurier's liberals and Borden became Prime Minister. Borden's first term was dominated by the outbreak of the First World War, a crisis which he largely led Canada through admirably. Had he stepped down at the end of his term, Borden would likely deserve his sterling reputation.

From the outbreak of the war, Borden committed Canada to standing by Britain's side, sending troops and supplies to Europe. However, volunteers to go to war soon slowed, and the war dragged on well beyond expectations. During a visit to the front lines, Borden was incredibly moved by the determination of the troops and the devastation to which they were exposed. He promised to do everything within his power to help the troops.

Borden was undoubtedly a man of his word, and he took action to bring about the promised support. In 1917 his government passed a measure allowing them to conscript Canadians into the army. Conscription was naturally unpopular among many Canadians, but it was particularly unpopular in Quebec where the war was seen by many as a conflict that had nothing to do with the Quebecois. The prospect of conscription put a major dent in the popularity of Borden's party, and with an election that year things were not looking good.

In order to improve their chances in the coming election, Borden's Conservatives decided to try and recruit talent from the opposition. The newly formed Union party included numerous former Liberals and would have been a formidable force alone in the election. However, Borden and his party were not content to stop there. They passed a series of laws blatantly designed to assist them in the upcoming election. Notably, they granted the vote to female relatives of soldiers, who were likely to vote in favour of the war effort, and they passed a law allowing them, as the sitting government, to funnel votes from overseas soldiers into the riding of their choosing in order to boost their standing in highly contested ridings.

In short, they rigged the election. I'll say that again: Borden and the Union party rigged an election.

Regardless of the motivations, I do not believe there is ever any reason to justify rigging an election. Borden violated the fundamental principles of Canadian democracy and (potentially) ruled against the will of the people. What he did was unethical on an unprecedented scale in this country.

So why is he a hero? Unfortunately, dear reader, here is where you discover, after suffering my winding build up, that I am a fraud. I have no answer to this question, only theories. In fact, I'm not sure there is a good, obvious answer to this question.

The popular theory is that because it was World War One, the ends justify the means. Borden did what he had to do to get the country through the war, and though what he did might not have been right, the cause was noble enough that it was worthwhile. Unfortunately, I don't buy this one. First of all, this is the First World War we're talking about here. WW1 was not the noble cause of the world fighting the evil empire as it was in World War Two. Though it is rarely taught this way in Canadian schools, the First World War was largely caused by the petty squabbles of some childish European powers, with the British and the French as much at fault as the Germans.

Putting that aside for a moment, the notion that the Canadian government needed to rig an election in order to avoid chaos, or support the troops is also fundamentally flawed. As Mackenzie King would ably demonstrate during the Second World War, leading the nation through crisis was doable without violating the will of the people. In addition, if the Canadian people spoke and indicated through a fair election that they did not want to support conscription, then no matter how noble the cause, Borden had no right to put his will above the majority. He was operating without a legitimate mandate.

So obviously there is more at work here than the popular theory. Something else has kept Borden's reputation in a positive light. Some of that, I believe, is likely related to his background and demeanour. As I said, Borden was a highly respected lawyer, prior to entering politics. Borden was smart, dignified, and demanded respect even from his opponents. For comparison, not much of that applies to Rob Ford.

My pet theory, however, is that the Conservative party has tried to preserve his reputation because they need their heroes. Consider the past of Conservative leaders for a moment. Despite his flaws, Sir John A. Macdonald undoubtedly tops the list of great men who led that party. Beyond him, however, current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a leader perhaps most notable to this point for his own attempts to manipulate the political system, is the only man who could claim to be close to Borden, a man who rigged an election, for second on that list. Certainly there are few who look fondly upon the full tenures of Mulroney, Diefenbaker, or Bennett. Those are not the names to be trotted out to build support. The Conservatives need Borden to be a hero who can compete with the likes of Laurier, Pearson, and Trudeau. They have no one else.

It's not a popular opinion, but I can't justify the hero treatment of Borden. He did some good things for Canadian independence from Britain, and he could have done a far worse job of leading and representing the country during the war, but Borden also divided the nation along English and French lines in a way which has been a problem to this day. And on top of that, he rigged an election. That is unforgivable in my mind. To answer my earlier question, Rob Ford deserved everything he got this week, and Robert Borden deserved far worse. We may remember him a hero, but a hero he is not.

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