Tories' health ads abuse power and trust

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@idirect.com)
Sun, 15 Nov 1998 09:05:24 -0500


Toronto Star Editorial

November 15, 1998

Tories' health ads
abuse power and trust

The Mike Harris government has taken to television with partisan ads
attacking Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty on health policy.

These follow $4 million of ostensibly non-partisan ads on taking
Band-Aids off the health system.

What distinguishes the two? The blame-McGuinty ads are paid for by the
Tories but the Band-Aid ads are paid for by the taxpayer.

A lot of people believe that the ads paid for by the taxpayer represent
an abuse of power. We agree.

This kind of advertising, now over $42 million without the usual
government ads included, is worthy of study by the provincial auditor.

The clobber-McGuinty campaign, by contrast, is supposedly acceptable
because the Tories are paying for it - albeit with help from tax
deductions.

But there's a bigger issue here. What marks our system as different from
the American is trust. Theirs is premised on the idea that government
cannot be trusted. Each branch of government must be checked by another,
no one of which is supreme.

But trust is central to ours. We must believe - for between elections we
have little choice - that a majority will use with restraint the
formidable powers Parliament provides to it.

A government's ongoing exercise of power is not justified by the
majority it holds, in other words, but by the trust it earns each time
it uses power. And unlike the Americans, we test each day, through
direct questioning, whether trust is still justified.

Harris answers few questions in the Legislature, however. And neither
inner restraint nor respect for contrary opinion has marked his
government.

Indeed, Harris' own words introducing The Common Sense Revolution did
not suggest they would. ``The political system stands in the way of
making many of the changes we need right now,'' he said there.

The political system? Did he just mean cities and school boards whose
powers he gutted when they blocked his way? If that were all, it would
be concern enough.

But Harris' proposition, that the Tories are not there to govern but to
``fix'' the system, denies responsible government itself. Indeed, it is
perilously close to arguing that his government need not be restrained
by tradition.

This is not an idea in keeping with the spirit of our democracy, or any
democracy for that matter.

Unfortunately, Queen's Park has also chosen not to restrain itself in
the most sensitive area of our democratic life: elections and how they
are financed.

Traditionally, changes to election rules were based on all-party
agreement. But Harris used not simply his majority but the bluntest of
all parliamentary instruments - closure - to override objections and cut
off debate on the rules he wanted.

And now we can see what the new rules mean. There are no limits on
spending in the months before an election, and none will be respected.

It does not serve us that a government seems intent on buying - rather
than winning by its ideas and its record - a majority to justify
whatever it might choose to do. It does not build trust but destroys it
and, with it, the legitimacy of all government does.

How are we to think it legitimate when - months before an election is to
be called - we see vast amounts of public treasure expended to place
some of this century's most vaunted propaganda techniques in the service
of untrammeled power?

Even if it were not propaganda, it would be obscene, when the homeless
crowd our streets and hospitals close, to spend $42 million to bash
teachers and school boards and take Band-Aids off a health system Harris
wounded.

But it is propaganda, and it is worthy neither of our traditions nor our
trust - nor our respect.

Rather, it connotes a government abusing power and position because, in
Mike Harris' words, ``the political system itself'' - what we call
democracy - stands in its way. People see this. That is why resistance
is rising on schools and health.

If the government wishes to run election ads, let it have the decency to
call an election. Otherwise, it should halt this abuse of our treasure
and our trust.

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