Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

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Can an auditor-general’s report bring down a government?

David Akin had posted the following to his blog on Tuesday: The U.S. government’s shocking lack of financial reporting accountability.

It got some attention on Twitter on Wednesday.

About the same time, Akin tweeted:

An auditor’s report like this would bring down govts in Canada. In the U.S., barely a shrug

This provoked me into asking Mr. Akin a question:

@davidakin When have govts in Canada been defeated over an AG’s report?

Akin back at me:

@billdinto Could argue that A-G sponsorship scandal report was major contributing factor to Liberal downfall, don’t you think?

@davidakin Certainly played a role, but caused? Allow me to think about this.

I was about to get off the bus and start my five-minute walk to the CTV newsroom when I made that last tweet. So now I’ve thought about it, and here’s my reply.

This handy-dandy sponsorship scandal timeline refreshed my memory.

Here are the salient parts:

  • November 12, 2003: Then-prime minister Jean Chrétien prorogues Parliament two days before the Auditor-General Sheila Fraser is to release her report on the sponsorship program
  • Dec. 12, 2003: Paul Martin officially becomes prime minister, having formally won the Liberal leadership on Nov. 14
  • Feb. 10, 2004: Auditor-General Sheila Fraser’s report on the sponsorship scandal is released, and it’s a bombshell. Martin announces a raft of measures, including a public inquiry to be chaired by Justice John Gomery
  • June 28, 2004: Liberals hold on to power in a federal election, albeit with a minority government

This did not end the Liberals’ sponsorship troubles. The party hit a modern-day popularity low in April 2005 after ad executive Jean Brault’s testimony to the Gomery commission was made public.

Gomery issued his first report in November 2005.

On Nov. 28, Parliament passed a vote of non-confidence in Martin’s minority government. This triggered an election, with the vote held on Jan. 23, 2006.

Amazingly enough, the Liberals held about a five-point lead in the polls until a new bombshell hit: Then-RCMP Commissioner Guiliano Zaccardelli sent a letter to NDP MP Judy Wasylecia-Leis on Dec. 27 saying his force was conducting a criminal investigation into allegations of insider trading within the office of Finance Minister Ralph Goodale prior to the announcement of a new policy on the taxation of income trusts. That letter became public.

The Liberals, who were largely seen to have been running a poor campaign, never recovered. The Conservatives formed a minority government in the election, and retained power with an enhanced minority following the Oct. 14, 2008 federal election.

But I think it’s worth noting that in the first electoral test after the sponsorship scandal broke, the Liberals still held power. The scandal obviously hurt the party, but didn’t kill it.

So even a scandal of historical scale won’t necessarily finish off a federal government — and some political pros I spoke with at the time suggested that if Paul Martin hadn’t panicked, the Liberal party wouldn’t have suffered as much damage as it did.

After all that, I would hold to the view that AGs’ reports, by themselves, don’t generally lead to the defeat of governments.

Routine scandals

But there is another issue to consider, and this is more journalistic than political.

Akin wrote the following:

The press release I have from GAO was released at 3:10 pm today and, at 8 pm, I can find just one news story about this. Apparently that’s because this is an annual event — so everyone shrugs their shoulders and carries on.  Isn’t this kind of a core thing reporters report about if they cover federal politics? Attention Americans: Your auditor cannot audit trillions of dollars worth of tax collection and spending because your federal government’s books are an absolute mess — again!!!

It’s one of those scandals in plain view. Dysfunction becomes the norm, and the norm isn’t news.

I’m not that knowledgeable about American government and politics, and I don’t pretend to be able to solve another country’s problems. But from my perspective, it’s one of those wonk issues that’s hard to encapsulate for the public (although Akin did an admirable job!). For example, who’s the bad guy? Who’s the good guy? I should take time away from watching Jersey Shore to read about an accounting problem?

How hard? If you were a Stewart or Colbert writer/performer, how would you make fun of this situation and make people both laugh and understand it?

Because the problem is chronic, the blame can be spread around.  This lessens the interest in any one side championing a solution. This chokes off the fuel needed for the news furnace.

Crappy situation, eh?

Allow me to offer a ray of hope.

Some combination of the following might happen: A smart journalist will hook up with an idealistic editor, and they will work together with others to tell the story in a way that finally catches people’s attention.

Bloggers will blog about it, citizens will pass around the news and reaction through social media channels, other media will pick up the ball — and eventually the politicians will feel enough pressure to act.

If the pressure keeps up, they might even come up with a solution!

But you need amplification. One thing that an auditor-general’s report does is force the media to cover the same issue at the same time.

Andrew McIntosh, once of the National Post, did many investigative stories on the so-called Shawinigate affair (the Wikipedia entry really should credit him by name) of the late 1990s.

From what I can remember of chatter of the CAJ-L email discussion list at the time, many people thought there wasn’t a story there — or that the right-wing N-P was just trying to torment a Liberal political opponent.

Even if there was a real scandal, Jean Chretien won a third straight majority in the Nov. 27, 2000 federal election.

Unless there’s a lot of amplification that reaches down to the public and makes them care, scandals don’t necessarily kill governments.

What does? When the public feels it’s time for a change.

Thu, December 23 2010 » Main Page, Media, politics

2 Responses

  1. Barry Rueger December 23 2010 @ 1:04 am

    “Unless there’s a lot of amplification that reaches down to the public and makes them care, scandals don’t kill governments.”

    Bill, I’d argue that what has changed is that governments no longer feel the least bit accountable for their actions.

    There was a time when a politician who was caught with their hand in the cookie jar, or who had screwed up in a major and public fashion, would feel obliged to resign. Whether because of their own sense of shame, or because the party leaders forced them out, there was a standard of behavior expected.

    (Of course the essential element is that they were caught: corruption has always been part of power.)

    Our politicians in Canada and the US have no sense of shame or embarrassment. All that matters is power, and the assumption is that no behaviour is so egregious that the media won’t forget it in a few days or weeks. And of course once the media drop it, it ceases to be part of the public mindset.

    Then again, the anti-HST referendum out here in BC was never supposed to fly, and was never taken seriously by any media outlet until it was apparent that success was imminent.

  2. Bill D December 23 2010 @ 9:25 am

    Hi Barry:

    If governments don’t feel accountable, maybe it’s because they now have a more refined sense of what the public will let slide.

    How about when the public elects someone who lies about many things because they believe he’ll cut taxes?

    It’s in the government’s/politician’s interests to stay on just this side of the tipping line.

    The public ultimately places the line.

    Gordon Campbell misjudged the line’s position on the HST. From what you say, the media also underestimated the backlash.

    But again, that’s different from my original point, which is that a single report from an auditor-general is not capable of toppling a government.

    And if a failing grade is given, when should a politician resign versus promising to do better?

    Paul Martin fell over himself saying how outraged he was by the scandal. Where did that ultimately get him?

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