The Ottawa Citizen by Jodi Bruhn 29 December 2013
Former Senate staffer Chris Montgomery has it. So does Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber. Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has it in spades. It’s called courage, and there’s mounting evidence that Canadians crave it in their public officials.
The ancient Greeks prized fortitude, both on the battlefield and in the civic life of Athenian democracy. Whether you label it mettle, grit or tenacity in the face of hardship, its ultimate test is the ability to persevere in the face of death. But there are lesser tests too, including intimidation and threats to one’s livelihood or reputation.
Consider the ethical muck Canadians have witnessed in 2013 at the federal level. Despite and even through it, we find some rare exemplars of courage this past year.
Case One. March 22. Veteran public servant Kevin Page has spent the final day of his tenacious five-year term as Parliamentary Budget Officer in court, still trying to extract details of the government’s plan to balance the budget. Asked if he’s disappointed by the government’s treatment of him, he responds: “I have a steel plate inside my head. I’ve lost a son. I’m not scared. What am I going to be scared of?” In the same interview, Page noted an “enormous amount of fear” in the federal public service.
Case Two. June 6. Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber resigns from the Conservative caucus. His justification? While he appreciates the role of compromise in politics, “I can only compromise so much before I begin to not recognize myself.” Rathgeber wants to uphold his commitment to transparency. He wants to represent his constituents in Ottawa, not the political executive in Edmonton. He sees no choice but to serve as an independent.
In normal times, as columnist Andrew Coyne pointed out last June, such decisions are politics as usual. Principle competes with pragmatism and sometimes principle wins. But as we learned from the scramble to keep Mike Duffy whole, ours are not normal times. These days, principle rarely trumps interest in federal politics. When it does, it’s seen as an extraordinary, even incredible, event.
Which brings us to Case Three. Nov. 20. The newly released RCMP reports suggest coercion, mendacity and greed in the Duffy affair — but in its midst also a startling example of courage. From February to May, Conservative Senate staffer Chris Montgomery repeatedly objected to PMO interference in the Senate report on Duffy’s expenses. It looks like this Conservative staffer was the sole point of resistance on the matter.
The PMO was incredulous. Montgomery’s action, according to the emails collected by the RCMP, was “epic,” “unbelievable.” But Canadians saw something else: a guy just trying to do his job, struggling — ultimately failing — to convince his bosses in the Senate to safeguard the independence of the upper chamber.
A political environment like this breeds cynicism. So it’s perhaps not surprising that, on Oct. 30, an Ekos poll measuring Canadians’ confidence in the direction of their federal government registered the lowest level ever.
Page, in the meantime, is a trusted commentator working out of the University of Ottawa. His reputation as a public official is rivalled only by that of the former auditor general, Sheila Fraser. She was hailed when she retired in 2011 as one of the most important and popular Canadian political figures of the last decade.
Rathgeber’s future remains to be seen. His decision gained him sympathy from some, but he was also turfed from his riding association the day after he resigned.
As for Chris Montgomery, he left the Hill last summer. If it weren’t for the RCMP report, his actions would have never emerged.
That’s the thing about courage. It courts risk: risk to careers, to reputations, to livelihoods. It helps one stare down fear, but with no guarantees as to the outcome. The contrast to the current federal political culture, which not only manages risk but shuns it, could not be starker.
So now, from the depths of our political winter, let’s raise a glass to fortitude. Let’s honour those public officials who acted with courage this year — those whose actions saw the light of day and those whose never will. Let’s honour the principled arguments that fell like wounded sparrows in federal boardrooms across the country. While we’re at it, let’s toast the public officials who will show courage in 2014. May their words be heard and their deeds seen. Our democratic institutions need them more than ever.
Jodi Bruhn is a former federal public servant. She is co-author of an anecdotal biography of Eric Voegelin, a political philosopher forced to flee Vienna in 1938.