By Dave Bulger (guest opinion)
On the last night of the Roman year, two men kept vigil on the Capitoline Hill, watching the skies for omens. They were the Consuls, the two chief magistrates of the Roman Republic. They would take office on the first day of January, would have one year in which to effect any political programs, and would retire from office on the last day of December a year away.
Think of it. How wonderful it would have been if we could have gotten rid of Bobby Ghiz in 2008 — having given him and his band of merry men and women only one year to wreak damage on the economy, the landscape and the morale of Islanders.
Well, of course, a one-year term of office may not be workable in our complex society. But limited terms, that is, terms which are actually limited — not just fixed election dates in which the same gang of clowns can be returned to office — would be an excellent idea. And the reason for that is the following: long-term occupation of office can bring notions of entitlement and delusions of superiority, if not grandeur.
One of the wisest statements that has ever been written is Lord Acton’s, “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Now there is a issue with the word “corrupt.” We tend to think of it as meaning “morally evil,” but Acton probably meant something more political, given the context, since he would see political corruption rooted in the continued exercise of power over long periods of time, in the sense of entitlement and the delusions of superiority that come with the comfort of long tenure.
Corruption, in a political sense, involves the illusion that the office holder is right, while any opposing voices are clearly wrong. In our system, where ministers are generally not knowledgeable in the subject matters of their ministry, this illusion is shared with civil servants — especially senior civil servants — whose tenure of office is even longer than their minister’s.
Likewise, entitlement and delusions of superiority among ministerial advisers could, for example, produce the following kind of assessment of hundreds of letters to the editor opposing a remarkably stupid government highway policy: “After all, it’s only the same five or six people ... and they’re all ‘tree huggers.’”
What, of course is fascinating about this particular statement, and would confirm the “political corruption” — i.e. entitlement and delusions of superiority — of the speaker, is the lack of knowledge of the legal principle in Armadale Publishers. That decision required that editors must be able to identify each letter writer.
“Political corruption” — entitlement and delusions of superiority — can also drive misguided expenditures of public monies. Where common sense would dictate restraint, “political corruption” by ministers and advisers will dictate “living large.”
For years, I defended our higher taxes in the face of criticism by American friends and relatives. I pointed to our universal medical care, our far less expensive post-secondary education as examples of things supported by our justifiably higher taxes. But in recent years, I have come to accept that tax dollars also go to fund out-and-out stupidity on the part of ministers and their advisers, and frankly I am tired of handing money over to the un-bright and entitled.
So, I return to a theme I have set out before. We will have no say as long as our system remains as it is. The opinion pages of this newspaper are filled with letters and commentaries which take the government to task for this action or that inaction, but, in reality, such expressions of opinion are exercises in futility.
To all those who write and comment on a variety of specific issues: what we really need are three things, namely, “initiative,” “recall” and “term limits.” Initiative will give us the right to originate legislation and have it voted on by the entire population. Recall will allow us to unseat members of the legislature and force them to run again. Term limits will end long-service and the sense of entitlement that accompanies it. As long as we do not have those things, complaints are simply sounding on the deaf ears of the entitled and those who imagine themselves superior.
To those who write and criticize the government, this advice: band together, circulate a petition addressed to the Lieutenant-Governor demanding that he withhold Royal Assent for all legislation — legally this is his prerogative — until such time as he is presented with bills establishing initiative and referendum, recall of members and term limits. Then we will have broken Absolute Power and the “corruption” that attends it.
David M. Bulger is a retired adjunct professor of political science at UPEI