History Wars at the ROM – Power Corrupts Canadian Politicians

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Here is a copy of a speech I gave at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) History Wars debate.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men…” So goes Lord Acton’s famous 1887 aphorism.  The examples to support Acton’s claim are numerous. One only has to Google “dictators,” warlords” and “fascists,” to retrieve a list bearing the stories of Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin Dada and Adolph Hitler, to name a few.

Without question, these men committed horrific crimes.  And, viewed in isolation, one could be forgiven for falling back on the notion that power corrupts every politician.

One can also comb through evening news to witness the tribulations of governors, senators and mayors who have been caught with their nose deep in the public trough.  From the horrific to the benign, there is no shortage of example to demonstrate the prevalence of political corruption.

With this disclaimer behind us, we need to more closely examine the notion that “power corrupts”?  Tonight’s debate presents us with an opportunity to free ourselves from the simply sensational reporting of today’s 24/7 news networks to truly consider whether the notion of corruption in high places is as prevalent as it appears.  The question should be, “are politicians more corruptible with the attainment of power than their counterparts in other spheres of endeavor”?

With that in mind, I’ll cite the examples of Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black, media tycoons and possessors of power stemming from capital and influence.  Do their recent indiscretions demean the reputations of all journalists, or are they isolated incidents reflective of individual overweening ambition?

Do the actions of executives at Enron and WorldCom and their undisputed power (at least at the time); cast a pall over all chief executives generally?  They do not. In fact there are multiple examples of the philanthropic work of leaders like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet –holders of power, wealth and influence who are respected for their positive impacts on society.

In the private sector, for every story involving a discredited and fraudulent executive, there are others praising business leaders as “job creators,” “visionaries” and “leaders of industry.”

Our dim view of politicians is invariably tied to their role as keepers of the public purse and the perception that their actions are evidence of selfishness or crude attempts to maintain power for its own end.  But isolated examples of evil must be contrasted with the unique power of politicians to stoke the common good.

In Canada, political visionaries have wrought far-reaching and positive changes to our society.  Because of a prime minister, each citizen is protected by a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees civil liberties for all.

The Multiculturalism Act of 1970, a political document, redefined our country, to shape a society based on pluralism and equality for all citizens.

The very foundation of Canada is built on the courageous notion that two distinct peoples, with different histories, customs and cultures, could unite to form one country.

The point is this; none of these societal changes could have happened, if honourable politicians were not vested with power.  Political power, exercised for collective benefit, is the purest form of public service.

It takes great strength of character to exercise power for the common good.

Public scrutiny of Canadian Prime Ministers and other elected officials is intense and growing– and the country is better for it.  In today’s society, it is almost impossible to exercise absolute power, particularly to the point where corruption sets in.

Are there examples of politicians gone wrong?  Of course, but to imply that corruption abounds in our leaders and that each has a predilection to act in their own interests is as unfounded as saying all media moguls are crooked.

In all spheres of influence, a few bad apples are bound to turn up.  But for the majority, the drive to succeed and the desire to do well are intrinsically linked.

Politicians put themselves out there for public scrutiny; those who pass the public’s muster are rewarded with the power to act.  History shows us that the public is often rewarded for their trust, while every so often, a true visionary does something extraordinary – and changes the world.