Newly elected NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau (right), who suddenly finds herself embroiled in a minor political scandal over her college degree can take some solace in the outcome of the 2011 election and the prevailing lesson it offers up. Namely, that widely covered scandals seldom have a major impact on polling results. Let’s look at the larger picture, shall we?
At various times in the run-up to Canada’s 41st trip to the polls, the Conservative Party was the target of accusations—most of them confirmed—which should, in theory, have been sufficient to bring down any government. There was the scandal when Bev Oda directed the doctoring of ministry documents to deny funding to humanitarian group Kairos* and then misled parliament about the origins of that change. Then, there was the revelation that the Conservatives had, under the guise of preparing for the G8 conference in 2010, provided slush money to valued Conservative ridings like industry minister Tony Clement’s, some of which were not even affiliated with the conference. That scandal was followed shortly by an announcement from Auditor General Sheila Fraser saying that a Conservative report on the G8 and G20 summits had used a quote of hers out of context. Way out of context.
(Fraser had, in 2010, said that the Liberal party’s security expenditures in the wake of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks had been “spent as they were intended to be spent.” The Conservatives’ report, however, claimed that Fraser had made that statement in reference to their own party’s summit spending, supposedly absolving them of the slush fund allegations.)
On top of those scandals, of course, there was also the spectre of the Conservatives’ recent contempt of Parliament charge, which had been predicted to be a pall that would loom over the entire campaign.
And yet, just when it was beginning to look as though the Tories’ controversies would have a significant impact, they didn’t. Harper was re-elected, Clement was re-elected, Oda was re-elected, the Conservatives were handed a majority, and any scandals surrounding the party seemed to quickly dissipate, having had little to no effect on the election’s outcome.
So let’s take the long view: political scandals aren’t always as toxic as they may seem. But, with that being the case, it is absolutely worth questioning why Brosseau has undergone so much public scrutiny in the last few days.
Relative to allegations of partisan slush funds, lying about Auditor General reports, and directly disobeying parliamentary law, questions about the vacation plans and postsecondary achievements of opposition backbenchers seem less earth-shattering. And yet while Canada’s media outlets are abuzz with Brosseau updates, the scandals surrounding the Tories have not only gone away but, in retrospect, were scarcely this well-discussed even in the thick of the election run-up.
It is unfair to politicians and voters alike to suggest, as some commentators have, that Brosseau is facing this criticism simply because she is a woman, or young, or attractive. Yes, Brosseau is an outsider on Parliament Hill, but in the wake of a race which saw massive turnover in ridings all over the country, it is difficult to make the case that Canadians are opposed to seeing new faces in government.
Instead, it seems more likely that Brosseau is merely a hot story in the post-election news vacuum, a victim of circumstance rather than prejudice. She’s a convenient foil in a slow part of the news cycle.
During this comparatively inactive post-election period for domestic political news, the media and the public have the time to pick apart cases such as Brosseau’s. Harper and the Tories, meanwhile, had the benefit of having their scandals revealed during the campaign. Already flooded with elections coverage and mudslinging from all sides, Canadians found it harder to keep up with the scandal stories as they developed.
As bigger stories begin to float in again, Brosseau and her introductory mini-scandal will eventually be pushed out of the spotlight. What is required in the interim is a little perspective. Brosseau’s is not a major scandal—certainly not when compared to the recent scandals surrounding other politicians. If the Canadian public wants to examine political issues with such depth, and it should, the big issues, the ones that were largely glossed over during the campaign, ought to be first in line. In time, they will be.
*Disclosure: Kairos is an occasional advertiser in the print edition of This. – ed.