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In politicians, we trust

Nothing damages the value of your citizenship like the perception of dishonest government. The indignation people express over the ever-lengthening news coverage of senators lining their pockets, or of city mayors resigning their seats over revelations of civic fraud, is not evidence of sickness in our society. Rather, that people get worked up over these things is evidence of health.

Nothing damages the value of your citizenship like the perception of dishonest government.

The indignation people express over the ever-lengthening news coverage of senators lining their pockets, or of city mayors resigning their seats over revelations of civic fraud, is not evidence of sickness in our society. Rather, that people get worked up over these things is evidence of health.

If Canadians want to keep our system honest and healthy, our first line of defence is a well-paid, professional civil service.

When we begin to devalue the people who do the legwork of public service, we begin to devalue the notion of citizenship. Things that societies ought to do out of duty should not become commodities with a cash value, for sale to those who can afford it.

Canadians — despite the stories about senators taking money they shouldn’t, and about mayors being paid off by criminal organizations to build shoddy roads and rotting bridges — may not appreciate the global advantages we have because we actually expect our governments to be honest.

No matter how people may roll their eyes at the notion politicians in Canada seek office for idealistic reasons, I suspect many of us really have no idea how lucky we are that we can actually trust our public institutions to act in our interest. No matter how people gripe at the cost of a well-run civil service, we have no notion how much more it costs not to have one.

Around the world, honest government is not an expectation.

Transparency International is a Berlin-based study group which recently published a global report card on corruption. They interviewed 114,000 people in 100 countries to assess public perception of government honesty.

The results are not encouraging.

More than half the people in their study said they believe corruption has gotten worse where they live in the last two years.

More than one in four people interviewed said they paid a bribe to receive government services in the past year.

Imagine the fees we pay for freedom of information requests. They’re already steep enough that major requests can only be made by large, well-funded groups. But imagine having to add a “fee” to the person behind the counter before he will hand you the envelope with the information you already paid for. It’s common practice around the world, in places where civil service itself is low-paid, but where the jobs are coveted (and sold) for their value in bribery.

Canadian drivers would consider it a serious breach to try to blow past a CheckStop. But in many places that’s the smart thing to do. Police in a lot of countries do not stop you to prevent crime, but to shake you down for payment to ignore whatever violation they can imagine they saw.

Around the world, people accept corruption with a shrug, says Transparency International. But the world is shrinking. Market values are creeping in to replace civic duty closer and closer to home.

Philosopher Michael J. Sandel recently wrote in the Atlantic, describing how public services have been transformed into marketable items.

You can pay to upgrade your prison cell in some U.S. states. You can pay — the government, not a poacher — to shoot an endangered black rhino in South Africa.

Women here can be paid to be a surrogate mother, although a woman in India will outsource that service for a third of the price, plus the cost of official bribery for the paperwork.

Sandel also questions what happens when nations hire mercenaries to fight their battles, rather than counting on the patriotism of their own people.

In countries (mostly poor countries) where this idea has no shock value at all, the cost of corruption keeps them from progress and development.

Thus, it pays to be wary when government seeks to devalue its own civil service, and to put market values on things that should not be marketable.

A couple of months ago, the Boston Globe reported a Democratic Party directive to newly-elected members of the House of Representatives “to devote at least four hours a day to the tedious task of raising money.”

If Canadians ever discovered that their MPs were being told to put that big a chunk of every working day into party fundraising, we’d be outraged. In the U.S., how many people even know this happened, much less care?

I see the difference as a sign of health. Staying healthy puts us at a huge global advantage, and is worth the cost of both a trustworthy civil service and of reasonable pay for elected office.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.