Opinions

No excuse for apathy

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Trudeaumania it ain't, but if the sense of momentum currently surrounding Stephen Harper and the Conservatives holds until election day, it may inspire some previously apathetic Canadians to vote. Conversely, the prospect of a Conservative government may scare previously apathetic Canadians on the other side of the ideological spectrum into voting as well. Whatever the ultimate turnout is, it is unlikely to exceed 70 per cent of registered voters, a mark the past few federal elections have also failed to reach.

Low turnout at elections­ and cynicism on the part of some of those who bothered to show up predated the sponsorship scandal. But if the coming election attracts a dismal proportion of voters, a perceived increase in corruption will undoubtedly be cited as a cause. The intense media coverage devoted to the Gomery inquiry may indeed turn some Canadians off voting on January 23. But the revelations exposed within it and their effect needs to be contextualized.

The corruption revealed by the Gomery inquiry may have justifiably shocked and angered Canadians, but there is no evidence that it is part of a broader trend in our nation's politics. It's true that Canada slipped a few notches in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index over the past two years. But the index only measures the degree of corruption perceived to exist by a given country's public officials and politicians. Given that Paul Martin cancelled the sponsorship program upon taking office, it's entirely possible that corruption actually decreased in 2004 and 2005. But acknowledging as much would have made it a lot harder for the Conservatives to acquire momentum.

While the Corruption Perceptions Index may be an imperfect guide, it's worth noting that Canada still ranks pretty close to the top of it. Suggestions that the country has become, or ever was, a "banana republic" are absurd and insulting. Corruption in Canada is nowhere near as pervasive as it is in Thailand or Bolivia, countries that have repeatedly ranked closer to the bottom of the index. Those are nations that don't possess an auditor-general. The minority of honest politicians that hold offices within them probably don't know the half of the corruption that exists, and it's scary to think what sort of rating such countries would get if they did.

Yet, astonishingly, voter turnout in those two countries in recent elections has been virtually identical to that in Canada. Something's amiss when people who genuinely have the right to be apathetic about the potential for ending corruption still vote in almost as great numbers as we do. If corruption has in fact increased in Canada in recent years, it's probably because politicians lack a fully engaged electorate to hold their feet to the fire.

Thus choosing to vote in spite of the sponsorship scandal isn't taking corruption lightly. On the contrary, it's recognizing it as a serious problem that requires a serious response, as opposed to a bunch of pointless bellyaching.

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