Grounds for dismissal

Grounds for dismissal
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My sad little country has been making a lot of embarrassing headlines ’round the world lately thanks to Toronto’s buffoonish mayor Rob Ford, who has, as we all know, recently confessed to smoking crack cocaine while in office — a charge he previously (kinda sorta) denied.

I’ve written two editorials for the Huffington Post on the whole mess, both of which look at media reactions to the Mayor’s public breakdown and the increasingly loud calls for his resignation. Here’s the first: Rob Ford Brings out the Puritan in Media (Nov. 4). And the second: Five Media Perspectives on Rob Ford (Nov. 7).

What I find most interesting about this episode is the degree to which it makes us ponder one of the fundamental questions of democratic government: does there exist a consistently enforceable standard for determining when a politician should be removed prematurely from office? Or is the cry of “resign!” fundamentally just an arbitrary weapon to be used opportunistically against whatever weakened enemy we think we can bring down?

It’s a particularly acute question in the Ford case, considering the Mayor was one of Canada’s most polarizing politicians long before his current crack imbroglio. As a Tea Party-style conservative in charge of a city that’s supposed to embody everything that’s right and respectable about Canadian liberalism, his haters on the left have always been of that most extreme variety, the sort willing to abandon any principle of their own in order to destroy an enemy deemed so awful any means could justify his end.

The idea that Ford should quit simply because he smoked crack — or, to put it in the less elegant words of some of the folks protesting on the steps of city hall, because he’s a “crackhead” —  for instance, seemingly contradicts the left’s general position that drug use, and drug addiction in particular, is neither a moral failing nor shame, but rather a sympathetic disease at worst, and a personal lifestyle decision at best. This logic was part of the reason no one much cared when Liberal boss Justin Trudeau admitted in August he’s smoked Marijuana since becoming a member of Parliament. Even conceding the obvious point that Trudeau’s drug of choice wasn’t “as bad” as Ford’s, most of Trudeau’s progressive defenders claimed they simply didn’t think the private, recreational drug use of politicians was the sort of thing intelligent voters in the 21st century should bother their minds about. In that sense, it was a lot like the generally indifferent liberal attitude towards the deviant sex lives of politicians like Anthony Weiner — to quote the Pope, who am I to judge?

To their credit, some on the left have been aware of this contradiction. Ivor Tossell, for example, a blogger from Randomhouse.ca, recently wrote a well-shared essay on the matter entitled “Wait, NOW Rob Ford is unfit for office?” Tossell’s thesis was basically that Ford has always been a horrible politician, and indeed, horrible person in many, many ways, and rather than suddenly “becoming” unfit for office through drug use, Torontonians “simply lowered the office to let him in” when they elected him in the first place. His resignation could have been justified from day one, in other words.

Others, such as the left-leaning editorial board of the Toronto-based Globe and Mail have conceded that if this was just a story of a mayor with a “drug problem” it “might be possible to forgive him,” but the fact that the Mayor lied about his drug use back in May ups it to a resign-worthy scandal. Leaving aside whether or not Ford actually did lie (I maintain, as Gawker’s John Cook did at the time, that the Mayor actually wove painfully elaborate non-lies to give himself plausible deniability from this very charge once the truth about his crack use inevitably came out), this indictment raises that other infernal question, which we discussed the other day in regards to Obamacare, are all political lies created equal? Is lying to cover up a personal embarrassment as bad as lying about, for example, the cost and scope of a government program?

The final camp, shall we say, are those who use the fact of Ford’s formal lawbreaking — his admitted use of a forbidden substance under the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act — as an appropriate pretext for booting him from office. At first glance, this seems like perhaps the most reasonable of all the anti-Ford stances. As many pundits have noted, mayors are supposed to be “chief magistrate” of their communities, and it doesn’t reflect well on their magisterial competence if they can barely obey the law themselves. But then again, it’s hard to argue all crimes are equal any more than all lies are. Thomas Mulcair, the NDP leader, once ran five stop signs in a row. If our only standard for dismissal is brazenly breaking the law, then why does Mulcair get to keep his job?

I have no love lost for Mayor Ford. But I’m also an old-fashioned conservative in the sense that I think it’s perfectly acceptable for a politician to resign, or be impeached, simply for violating polite society’s sensibilities of morally acceptable behaviour. I think President Clinton should have resigned or been impeached for having oral sex in the Oval Office, for instance, simply because that was an awful, embarrassing, disgraceful thing for a president to do, and I think those three horrible politicians who were recently expelled from the Canadian Senate deserved what they got simply for being greedy scammers, even if they committed no formal crime and were not sentenced with due process.

I’m aware such standards are inherently subjective and will invariably be arbitrarily applied, but in a democratic society I think the best way to bring closure to any morally hazy situation is to simply posit a preposition — say, “the mayor must leave office” — and see if you can mobilize enough support, either from the broader public or through votes in the legislature, to make it a reality. That sounds self-evident, but it’s actually a fairly radical proposition these days, a time when there’s so much movement towards making the whole business of political removals and resignations scientific, standardized, and legalistic, as if “unfitness for office” was a condition that could be objectively observed and diagnosed.

Rather than attempt to dream up some grand, abstract, ironclad principle of why Ford should go — “politicians should never lie” / “politicians should never break the law” / “politicians should not do drugs” — that are bound to be inconsistently and hypocritically enforced due to the vast array of exceptions to such rules one can easily imagine tolerating (and indeed, already have), what’s wrong with just embracing Occam’s razor — that he should go because most people think he’s offensive, immoral, and embarrassing?

We already elect our leaders on what amount to basically arbitrary standards of virtue — what’s so wrong about turfing them for equally subjective standards of sin?




^ 27 Comments...

  1. Trenacker

    Not that I don't find something eloquent in your logic, but what's to serve as the "official" evidence of popular ostracism? Opinion polls? Do members of Congress have an obligation to resign when they dip below an arbitrary (there's that word again) threshold? Thirty percent approval, perhaps?

    There are a shocking high number of people in my country who think that Barack Obama is exceptionally unfit for office. Some, especially on the left, point to November 2012 as the moment that he (re)established political legitimacy. Others insist that he was never legitimate to begin with, and would probably continue to forswear him even if they received a handwritten letter of recommendation from Jesus Christ himself.

  2. J.j. McCullough

    Therein lies the question, eh. This is why I think all politicians should be able to be impeached or recalled. The fact that the Toronto city council has neither is at the root of a lot of their current problems.

  3. Trenacker

    And again, are we working on a simple majority vote? Who decides when such elections shall be held? The legislature?

    If the Republicans could manage it at this point in time, and the procedural foundation was in place, do you think they'd attempt such a move?

    In a party system that holds out the possibility of divided leadership in the Executive and Legislature, the idea of a recall for the highest office in the land seems fraught with danger.

  4. awnman

    What do yu think we folks who live in parliamentary systems other than Canada go through. it dosnt happen often but if the elections tight and a couple of your folk cross isle then you lose confidence and stop being prime minister. Now this isn't even impeachment which takes 2/3 its a simple majority. So far us (UK, Australia, New Zealand etc.) haven't done to bad stability wise . Sure we in Australia especially have had some weird moments (the dismissal of Gough, the recent minority government and a Prime Minister who lasted all of five days) But in general its not a terrible system. If something really bad happens parliament has immediate recourse. Anyway that's just my 2 cs

  5. Jake_Ackers

    The House/Parliament speak on behalf of the people. Congress was suppose to be the stronger branch and the President just enforce it the laws and control foreign policy. As a result, ideally the leader should have a no confidence vote. After all he is the EXECUTIVE and a LEADER.

    Ideally I think there should be two executives like most countries. Speaker of the House is the Head of Government and deals with domestic affairs (thus easily replaced like the PM). Or have a Congressional Leader (like a President but again only deals with the domestic affairs) elected for max 2 terms of 4 years each (can only be impeached due to incompetence or corruption or something).

    And the Chief Executive would deal with foreign policy and security and have more of a free reign on that. Unless Congress directly orders him/her to do. Like get a free trade agreement with such and such country. Because free trade is economic which is domestic but at the same time free trade is clearly foreign policy. Or if Congress declares war. So the Executive would be more like a mature statesmen or General or experienced diplomat that serves one term of five years. However, this person would be easily removed if not keeping the country safe or if not following direct Congressional orders. Thus more like a Head of State.

  6. Chris Gilmore

    I personally don't think that Rob Ford should resign because he broke the law regarding recreational drug use, I think that he should resign because he's embarrassing Canada on the world stage. As a Canadian who lives abroad the only news I hear about my country relates to the crack smoking mayor of our largest city, Ford's antics don't just reflect upon Ford Nation, to an extent they reflect on everyone.

    Toronto is Canada's largest city and yet the mayor is known to be in denial of a rampant substance abuse problem, he's openly made racist, homophobic and sexist slurs, associates with gangsters, possibly associates with prostitutes now, has picked fights in public and has been caught in numerous lies. Ideology aside, how low do we have to set our standards? You can't compare the ridiculous behaviour of Mayor Ford to Mr. Mulcair running a few stop signs, the MP for Papineau hypocritically lighting up or our Prime Minister covering up for his cronies. While all of those things are bad, there's a bit of a difference in scale.

  7. Jack

    See, in Italy we have it simpler. After the 90s, where a huge wave of scandals (more than half of them later found to be fabricated in court) wiped out our political class, now all the politicians feel like they should never resign until dead or voted out, ;P – no matter if the scandal involves mafia, not-yet-legal prostitutes, money-laundering, releasing friends from prison, driving to ground a state-operated business, interfering into financial acquisitions, selling reserved information, and so on….
    This way, everyone can point happily at other pols scandalous behaviour, and everyone can enjoy a true holier-than-thou attitude ;)

    Cheers from Italy, from your usual mediterranean fan.

  8. Sucros

    Ignoring all other arguments, I think Ford should resign simply because he needs professional help for his own health. I have no idea how frequently he's smoked crack, but he has every trait of an out of control alcoholic.
    He's used the term "drunken stupor" to describe his own behavior. Alcoholics place themselves above consequences and fault, and the only time they seek help is when the reality comes crashing down on them. Ford nearly lost his office once already over, of all things, misuse of mayoral letterhead. It would have been the most idiotic reason to be forced out of office, but it nearly happened. It wasn't a mistake, Ford was explicitly warned not to misuse stationary for personal gain, and he went ahead and did it because, like most alcoholics, he believes the rules don't apply to him.
    And unfortunately, so far they haven't. He's committed multiple criminal and behavioral offenses and has yet to suffer any consequences. He's *more* popular now than before. In the logic of a substance abuser, this reinforces the sense of invincibility. And invincible-feeling people try and push boundaries of society and their bodies further and further.
    Most recovering alcoholics' recoveries start once they hit rock bottom. If Ford doesn't suffer consequences for his actions soon, he may drink himself into a very early grave.

  9. guest

    So – your answer is that they should resign when they have no alternative. When the level of opprobrium is simply unsalvageable?
    Not a very helpful guide – even if it has some advantages.
    The way things are going it is only a matter of time until our view of the moral position of politicians is so low that anything short of sacrificing live animals on the floor of the chamber will probably be forgivable.
    That will be a truly sad day.

  10. Heartright

    The Romans solved this question ages ago.
    The answer is the is the Office of Censor.
    If a public official deviates from the strictest possible standards of Gravitas, Dignitas and Severitas, he should be penalised, and that most severely.

  11. Heartright

    The following were ground for punishment.

    Such as occurred in the private life of individuals, e.g.
    Living in celibacy at a time when a person ought to be married to provide the state with citizens.[66] The obligation of marrying was frequently impressed upon the citizens by the censors, and the refusal to fulfil it was punished with a fine (aes uxorium).
    The dissolution of matrimony or betrothment in an improper way, or for insufficient reasons.[67]
    Improper conduct towards one's wife or children, as well as harshness or too great indulgence towards children, and disobedience of the latter towards their parents.[68]
    Inordinate and luxurious mode of living, or an extravagant expenditure of money. A great many instances of this kind are recorded.[69] At a later time the leges sumptuariae were made to check the growing love of luxuries.
    Neglect and carelessness in cultivating one's fields.[70]
    Cruelty towards slaves or clients.[71]
    The carrying on of a disreputable trade or occupation,[72] such as acting in theatres.[73]
    Legacy-hunting, defrauding orphans, etc.
    Offences committed in public life, either in the capacity of a public officer or against magistrates,
    If a magistrate acted in a manner not befitting his dignity as an officer, if he was accessible to bribes, or forged auspices.[74]
    Improper conduct towards a magistrate, or the attempt to limit his power or to abrogate a law which the censors thought necessary.[75]
    Perjury.[76]
    Neglect, disobedience, and cowardice of soldiers in the army.[77]
    The keeping of the equus publicus (a horse kept by patrician equestrian militia at public expense) in bad condition.
    A variety of actions or pursuits which were thought to be injurious to public morality, might be forbidden by an edict,[78] and those who acted contrary to such edicts were branded with the nota and degraded. For an enumeration of the offences that might be punished by the censors with ignominia, see Niebuhr.[79]

    A person who had been branded with a nota censoria, might, if he considered himself wronged, endeavour to prove his innocence to the censors,[80] and if he did not succeed, he might try to gain the protection of one of the censors, that he might intercede on his behalf.

  12. Devil Child

    Personally, this'll probably sort itself out when Ford attempts to buy crack from an undercover cop by offering to suck his dick.

    Just hope your city doesn't wind up like DC. They sent their crackhead to prison, and reelected him.

    I think President Clinton should have resigned or been impeached for having oral sex in the Oval Office, for instance, simply because that was an awful, embarrassing, disgraceful thing for a president to do,

    True, Clinton brazenly broke the law, but he was also the last great President this country's had. I'll fully admit it's brazen hipocrisy, but I'd probably tolerate crack smoking from a President who balanced the budget, engaged in short, successful, justified military endeavors, and presided over unprecedented prosperity.

  13. Jake_Ackers

    Actually that was all Gingrich. Clinton was the one that didn't want to balance the budget until forced to do so. Remember the gov't shutdown? Then after, Clinton made it about Medicare and the sort. Bosnia was completely illegal and the Supreme Court just did a cop out. Only reason he didn't take a political hit was because it was quick. Successful or not, it still was illegal and under Obama's guidelines, Clinton should of been impeached for that.

    However, he shouldn't of been impeached for having oral sex. Under that standard half of the Presidents especially JFK would have. But broke the law because he lied. That he should of been checked out of office. Although again he did lie to all of us, he just didn't legally lie. Or w/e was the excuse.

  14. Devil Child

    No one should give a crap about a military operation being legal or illegal, they should give a crap about them being moral and successful.

    Most of the victims of the Holocaust died very late in the war, and our reliance on having the Soviets perform the heavy lifting out east sent non-Western Europe into another half century of oppression. If we got involved with the war in '39 like we should've, we could've save untold millions more than we ended up saving from Fascism and Communism.

    Although I could be wrong. How did staying to the letter of the law work out in Rwanda?

  15. Jake_Ackers

    It's not what you do, it's how its done. Under that logical the US should become the policeman of the world. Some conflicts are best resolved internally. With outside forces pushing for some outline and guideline. Not every Civil War needs foreign military intervention. Look at the mess in Iraq, Vietnam, etc. Would of done best if we simply funded the good guys. Otherwise it seems like imperialism. Your opinion of WW2 is done in hindsight. What I would agree is that the British and French shouldn't of rolled over after Czechoslovakia. That would of prevented a lot more deaths.

  16. Jake_Ackers

    Well that is why Canada has a parliament. But that really only gets rid of the PM. On every other level IIRC its pretty much impossible. So yes there should be guidelines set for it and the legislature should be able to remove a corrupt official or the executive. If the legislature impeaches a legitimate executive then they risk getting kicked out in the next election. Or simply have a forced election every time a politician is kicked out of office by the legislature. Whether it be that position or the entire legislature (city, town or otherwise).

    Funny thing is if Canada followed the US's method, all these corrupt politicians would of been kicked out. (IE: IIRC the Senate can reject a politician or kick them out.) If the US followed Canada's method, Obama wouldn't be President.

  17. Devil Child

    A politician is far more likely to be assassinated than impeached. Brazil's the only country I know of that ever impeached the head of Government.

  18. Taylor

    Clinton and Johnson were both impeached in the USA.

  19. Ricardo Bortolon

    Those aren't equal–they were both acquitted while Brazil's President Collor was found guilty (though he'd already resigned anyways).

  20. Trenacker

    The problem with legislative accountability is that it is distressingly indirect, and arguably quite broken thanks to gerrymandering, the media cycle, and the politics of primary election. Yes, one can make an argument that it was always somehow broken: by widespread illiteracy, property requirements, and drunken brawling. That does not, however, bring us any closer to "good," let alone ideal.

    The balance, of course, is between "pure" democracy and plutocratic technocracy. Should we start administering competency tests for prospective office-seekers? Who gets to decide what qualifies as sufficient "competence?" Perhaps too slippery a slope.

    I wouldn't put much faith in Congress to responsibly execute the business of the nation. They've made a hash of things these past six years. Enough to call into doubt their collective, let alone individual, wisdom. Besides that, the new media cycle imbues the president, who is much more visible and accessible than any single congressman, with quite a bit more soft power.

  21. Heartright

    Why tests of Competency? I can full well understand tests of Charactrt as being relevant – but I don't see how competency is a necessity for either Lawmaker or Voter.

  22. Jake_Ackers

    You can't force people to be responsible with how they vote. The greatest pitfall of democracy. Popularity contest.

  23. Trenacker

    In theory, if we are aiming for a purely representative democracy, than tests of any kind are to be scrupulously avoided. The question is whether (and to what extent) we are willing to dilute our democracy in order to advance what is presumably the collective good (ignoring, for now, the practical difficulty of securing a Constitutional amendment).

    If tests of character, which evaluate a lawmaker's fitness to safeguard the public trust, are appropriate, then why not tests of competency, which evaluate a lawmaker's objective knowledge of selected public policy matters? (This assumes, of course, a direct correlation between policy knowledge and efficacy as a lawmaker — and that we have some method of identifying objectively "good" policy outcomes.)

    Tests of competency for voters would probably thwart the entire object of democracy, which is to provide representative government.

  24. Jake_Ackers

    Well in extremes it becomes: Do the stupid vote (and rule by proxy) or do only the competent vote (and rule by proxy)? The former eventually leads to the rotting and then the direct fall of a nation. The latter leads to the tyranny by an oligarchy and then enough people complaining to lead to the fall of a nation. Pick your poison I suppose.

    TBH, 80%-90% of people probably would be happy if they were raised in a competent oligarchy. It's until someone doesn't their own cards that they start to hate the game and convince others their cards are bad too (even though it's not). Gov't is just a set of guidelines put in place until the next person whines enough to change them.

    Also I think there would of been voting tests if it wasn't for the poll tax in the US. You have to pass a test for everything else. At the very least the same test as the citizenship test. The historical notion of having a test to vote will never allow it to happen again.

    Although having a competent and "free" educational was suppose to provide competent voters. But we are too afraid to fail students or we simply let them be dropout. A better educational system would fix our problems.

  25. Heartright

    99 Professoris. Germany, you are lost.
    A commentary on the Frankfurter Parliament. of 1848, in 1848.

    Knwledge is no requirement. A character of steel is.

  26. Rob

    Nice Clark caricature!

  27. واتس اب بلس

    thanks for your sharing