Federal politics wasn't always morally challenged. If you want to pin a date on when the ethical decline began in earnest, you might try 30 years ago. Before that, there were periodic manifestations of malfeasance that, human nature being what it is, were not out of the norm.
During Lester Pearson's stewardship, for example, many Quebec ministers resigned or were sidelined owing to ethical breaches, the seriousness of which was exaggerated by John Diefenbaker's invective. But Mr. Pearson was deemed to be, and indeed was, an honourable politician.
The government of Pierre Trudeau was not overly encumbered with scandal, nor was that of Mackenzie King or Louis St. Laurent. But at the close of his period in office, Mr. Trudeau made a spate of egregious patronage appointments that set off a firestorm in the media, sullied his reputation and handicapped his successor, John Turner.
Since that time, the ethical climate has deteriorated. Brian Mulroney's government was dogged almost from the outset by the perception that he was some kind of shyster. But compared with Stephen Harper, Mr. Mulroney demonstrated a good deal of respect for the democratic process. The problem was his cabinet. Several of his ministers had to resign for ethical breaches. But the perception was that the fish rots from the head down. And it didn't help when Mr. Mulroney controversially accepted cash from lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber shortly after leaving office.
When we recall Jean Chrétien's Liberals, what leaps to mind on the subject of ethics is the sponsorship scandal. Think of Adscam, the shutting down of the Somalia inquiry, the crushing of democratic protests at the APEC summit, the grant boondoggle at Human Resources Development Canada. Think of the Airbus affair, the blocking of Conrad Black's peerage, the profusion of grants to the prime minister's riding, Shawinigate.
And how about the way the Liberals took down François Beaudoin, the head of the Business Development Bank of Canada? Mr. Chrétien, you may recall, had personally lobbied the bank for a loan for a friend who owned the Auberge Grand-Mère, an inn near a golf course in which Mr. Chrétien had an interest before he became prime minister. When Mr. Beaudoin resisted the loan entreaties, he was subjected to what a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled was "an unspeakable injustice" designed to "break him and ruin his career."
For a long time, the Liberals paid no political price for their actions. But, with the sponsorship scandal, it all caught up with them, tarnishing Mr. Chrétien's stewardship and dealing a devastating blow to the Liberal Party.
The Mulroney and Chrétien experiences served notice of the toll that the moral low ground can take on governments.
But if there were lessons to be learned, the Harper Conservatives weren't paying attention. Even if the robo-call scandal turns out to be minor, there's already so much that's unsavoury on their plate that it will be difficult for them to escape the fallout.
Stephen Harper is different from his predecessors. Mr. Chrétien was driven to many of his authoritarian excesses because the separatists were a grave threat to him. With Mr. Mulroney, it was an infatuation with the big dollar. With Mr. Harper, it's the system – that thing called democracy.