COLUMN: Honour system has its failings

The recent audit of senators' expenses begs the question, is the system to blame, or the politicians who take advantage?

Years ago, a friend was telling me about a work-related injury, and that the government job allowed for up to three months paid leave recovery time.

“How long do you think you’ll be off?” I sympathized.

Her answer likely wouldn’t surprise you, as it did me.

“You’re taking all three months?” I asked naively.

“Who wouldn’t,” her partner responded matter-of-factly.

Fair question, I guess. Who wouldn’t take anything and everything allowable under the rules of the day?

Anyone…?

I was reminded of this conversation when talking to the editor of another community newspaper last week about the allegations against senators accused of misspending funds, in particular the claims from auditor general Michael Ferguson in a report that former South Surrey senator Gerry St. Germain had spent public money bringing Senate staff to his anniversary celebration at Hazelmere Golf Course.

(St. Germain, it should be noted, disputes any suggestion of impropriety, and seems confident further investigation will clear his good name.)

The other editor – noting the accusations against former senator Mike Duffy currently on trial in Ottawa – suggested the rules are to blame.

But I can’t buy that.

While the rules of the Senate certainly seem open to individuals using them for personal benefit – if they so desire – I wonder how anyone could take advantage of them.

My fellow editor then noted that politicians have no monopoly on bellying up to the trough. We’d both been to political, community and industry events, where journalists bellied up to the bar as much as any other group.

Free food and drinks? How about a swag bag? Journalistic elbows out!

But surely there’s a difference between the niceties of networking, and taking advantage of a situation.

The Senate may have too few rules in place to weed out those who are there for personal gain, but shouldn’t these political appointees respond in kind to the honour to which they’ve been appointed – exemplifying honour?

Clearly, this ‘honour system’ has its failings, whether among elected officials and appointees looking for a handout, journalists looking out for number one and employees seeking to take advantage of a sick day.

But this doesn’t have to mean the system is to blame, does it?

I have to believe that most of us conduct ourselves with integrity.

Any other explanation leaves me hopeless.

I’ve tried to instill honesty in my children, yet I have concern that if they act virtuously, they’ll risk being left behind.

We’ve all been told that cheaters never prosper, an axiom that ultimately fails when put to the test.

Assuming the Senate scandal ends with some sort of determination that the rules are indeed to blame – not the individual senators and the political leaders who appointed them – what are we to tell our children?

The only saving grace is that while all eyes should be on the red chamber right now, they’re not. Even those who make the effort to vote seem to have relegated it less important than the other news that dominates national headlines.

But in answer to the earlier rhetorical question about who wouldn’t take the full three months of sick time, regardless of sickness, I can tell my children that I wouldn’t.

I just hope I’m not alone.

Lance Peverley is the editor of Peace Arch News.

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