Saturday, August 22, 2015

Lawyers, Political Scandal & Canada's 'Watergate'

The presence of so many lawyers at the heart of political scandals is neither accident nor coincidence… they have operated at a level in the political culture where the attitude to conflicts of interest can best be described as ‘don’t get caught’.[1]

The current Senate scandal in Canada has implicated senior officials in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office, some of whom are also members of the Bar. The status of legal professionals as ‘officers of the court’ might incline people to think that they are less likely to become involved in political skullduggery. Yet, as suggested above, the involvement of lawyers in public scandals is nothing new. 

Canada’s 1st political controversy occurred early in its history.  In 1873, there was an apparent break-in and theft of documents at the Montreal offices of Conservative lawyer and future Prime Minister J.J. Abbott.  The documents stolen, which were released publicly, implicated a number of high ranking politicians, including ‘Father of Confederation’ G. E. Cartier and Prime Minister Macdonald, both of whom were lawyers. 
Amongst other things, what became known as the ‘Pacific Scandal’ revealed widespread graft in election financing, reaching to the highest levels of the Conservative Party.  The imbroglio ultimately resulted in the fall of Macdonald’s Conservative government in 1873[2].
Interestingly, the Pacific Scandal bears some similarity to the most famous modern American scandal, which occurred 100 years later.  The events surrounding ‘Watergate’ in the 1970s also involved allegations of a politically motivated criminal burglary.  President Nixon and the Prime Minister Macdonald were, of course, both lawyers, but so were many others implicated in each scheme.  Each scandal directly connected the leaders of the United States and Canada to highly unethical behaviour. 
One difference between the two events is that while both men lost office, Macdonald was defeated in an election, while Nixon resigned from office.  Another difference was that while Nixon resigned as a member of the California Bar, Macdonald remained a lawyer in good standing throughout his entire political career.

In the end, the effects of the past Canadian scandal had minimal long-term impact.  It’s true that the Pacific Scandal was a major factor in a later Liberal victory over the Conservatives.  By 1878 however, Macdonald was back in power, and remained Prime Minister of Canada until his death in 1892.  For its part, the Conservative Party still managed to hang on until another of Canada's great lawyer-politicians, Wilfred Laurier, defeated them in the election of 1896.

Some have described the legal profession as a kind of 'fifth estate’ that protects democracy by upholding the rule of law.
[3]  Many, if not most lawyers, play this role by providing professional representation to clients involved in legal proceedings. At a broader level though, there has long been a close connection between the Bar in Canada and politics.  The record of lawyer involvement in scandal, illustrated above, but in many other instances as well, suggests their contribution to our political culture may be sometimes be mixed with less democratic behaviours and values.    

[1] Carol Wilton, “Introduction: Beyond the Law – Lawyers and Business in Canada, 1830 to 1930”, Essays in the History of Canadian Law Volume IV (Toronto: U of T Press for Osgoode Society, 1996) at 28.
[2] Richard Gwyn, Nation Maker, Sir John A Macdonald: His Life, Our Times Volume Two 1867 – 1891(Toronto: Random House, 2011) at 244 – 258.
[3] Peter Russell, The Judiciary in Canada: The Third Branch of Government, (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1987) at 38.

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