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The covert uses of political scandal.

Most of us cringe when we hear a likeness being drawn between the APEC pepper-spray debacle and the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the United States.

The comparison of a prime minister-approved assault upon peaceful demonstrators to something as trivial as a president's sexual peccadilloes is an insult to the intelligence. As if Chretien's pepper jokes weren't insult enough!

There is a manifest difference between concealing an extramarital affair and concealing one's role in the suppression of democracy. And yet, a parallel may be found between the cases. It has to do with the way two unlikely issues have been turned into ammunition for the right-wing offensive on government.

Over the past year, the media have focused obsessively on the Clinton saga; even the most committedly indifferent have been unable to avoid learning a few lurid details. Many have condemned the hoopla as a diversion from graver matters; others have decried a Republican attempt to discredit the Democrats. It can also be seen as a right-wing attempt to undermine confidence in government altogether.

The corporate agenda cannot be fully implemented so long as the people have faith in the power of democratic government. If government is perceived as serving to protect society, the public will not allow it to be dismantled in order to "make room for business". Citizens who believe that their vote counts are less likely to be swayed by the "There Is No Alternative" excuse, or rally to the call to "Get Big Government Off Our Backs." Thus, the Right dedicates itself to discrediting government. The Clinton scandal provides an excellent opportunity to reinforce the public perception that elected officials are liars, that leaders are unaccountable, and even that Congress is a money-wasting circus.

Consider the response to "Peppergate." Neither the Reform Party nor the media evinced much concern over police brutality until the issue became one of the Prime Minister's credibility. Then it was seized upon as the ultimate example of too much power in the hands of a secretive and overbearing government. Unfortunately, commentators often forget to ask the question "why?". Why was the RCMP sent to pepper-spray protesters? So Indonesian dictator Suharto would be spared embarrassment. Why was Chretien trying to curry favour with Suharto? To secure trade with Indonesia. Why did Chretien want to secure trade with a bloody dictatorship? It all boils down to the philosophy that trade is more important than human rights. Why are we surprised to see how easily the brutal disregard for the rights of Indonesians can be extended to Canadians as well? While a few New Democrats have tried to raise such questions, the media only forwards those sound bites that are indistinguishable from the libertarian rhetoric of the Reform Party.

Peppergate has thus been packaged as a failure of politics-of arrogant government believing itself to be above the law - when it is more fundamentally a failure of unregulated global capitalism. What happened at APEC is less a matter of government interfering where it shouldn't, than of government failing to interfere where it should: failing to assert that whoever wants to do business with Canada must uphold certain standards. Both the Liberals and the Reform Party advocate trade agreements that would divest government of the ability to do just that. They insist that unregulated trade with enlightened nations such as ours will have a mysterious ennobling effect on foreign dictators, elevating their human rights practices to our level. As the APEC scandal demonstrates, it is far more likely to degrade us down to theirs. What is truly insidious here is the way our so-called Opposition has turned a national disgrace into an opportunity to advance the same sort of policies that caused it.

In the US, a credibility-of-government issue has been made out of something far too trivial. In Canada, such an issue has been made out of something far too important. It is essential that the Left remain steadfast in drawing attention to the real issues. While mouthing Reform Party-style slogans may win us media coverage and popular support in the short nm, we damage our own cause by allowing our critiques of the government to be recast as attacks on government itself.

Sara Kreindler is a member of the Canadian Dimension collective.
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Author:Kreindler, Sara
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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