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Corrupt Canada? We're small-time compared with U.S.

Okay, let's all take a deep breath.

There's no hard evidence that Quebec is Canada's most corrupt province. And in spite of what you may think, the federal government isn't a cesspool of bribery, cronyism and influence-peddling either.

Canadians should never be complacent or cynical. Left unchecked, corruption has a nasty way of working into the fibre of a society. Buying access, government jobs or contracts is intolerable, wherever it occurs.

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But look at the rest of the world, including right next door, and Canada is remarkably clean.

The country routinely ranks in the top 10 of the least corrupt nations in the world, according to Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. Canada tied Australia in ninth spot in the 2009 ranking, just behind many of the Scandinavian countries. The U.S. was well back in 18th spot.

Canada also stacks up well compared with its closest rivals in the World Bank's 2010 report on Worldwide Governance Indicators. The country scores a 97 per cent for its control of corruption - significantly better than all other Group of Eight countries. The United States rates an 85 per cent.

Maybe it's time for some perspective.

Consider the recent plea deal by Paul Magliocchetti, once one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. Last month, the 64-year-old quietly confessed to illegally funnelling $380,000 (U.S.) in campaign cash from defence contractors to a handful of members of Congress who control the Pentagon budget. He admitted to using a network of family members, friends and employees of his now defunct PMA Group lobbying outfit as proxies to get around campaign contribution rules.

In 2007 and 2008 alone, Mr. Magliocchetti's clients won more than $200-million in government contracts.

A lot of people will pay to play in the murky world of U.S. defence contracting, and Mr. Magliocchetti was a player. That's corruption on a grand scale.

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All the ingredients for systemic corruption are firmly in place. Members of Congress need a steady flow of cash to finance their elections, which occur every two years in the House of Representatives (every six for Senators). Think big money. Between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010, Senate candidates spent $311-million, more than any other 18-month period since at least 1991-92, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Unlike Canada, where the government and its agencies are solely responsible for procurement, members of key congressional committees can direct, or "earmark," money to special pet projects, even companies. Until recently, lawmakers didn't even have their fingerprints on these backroom deals.

The confluence of politicians who need money and companies eager for big contracts is irresistible. To make matters worse, lawmakers and their staffs can move with few restrictions from the halls of Congress to the lobbying shops on K Street, and sometimes back again, cementing this unholy alliance.

Eliminating the temptations has proven very difficult, despite several rounds of campaign finance reform. Critics want Congress to go further, by limiting total contributions from companies that receive earmarked contracts.

So far, Congress has balked. Lawmakers might rightly argue that it's akin to unilateral disarmament. After all, there's still no limit on the cash that candidates can raise and spend.

By comparison, our corruption seems, well, small-time.

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That doesn't mean we should ignore the recent Canadian scandals, including political meddling in the appointment of Quebec judges and allegations of corruption in the awarding of a $9-million (Canadian) renovation project for Parliament Hill.

Clearer rules and more transparency would help. The federal government already has pretty restrictive lobbying rules, including an independent arbitration process to handle allegations of abuse. The Harper government recently moved to tighten them further by barring MPs and senators from working as lobbyists for five years after leaving office and expanding lobbying reporting requirements.

The lesson of the Quebec judges scandal is to immunize bench appointments from the people who finance and run political campaigns.

That's all reasonable and good.

But let's not overreact. Governments would be unwise to overregulate a system that, by and large, is already clean.

The risk is that government becomes even more bogged down in rules and red tape that needlessly slows the work it does.

Here's something to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day: It could be much worse, and the proof is right next door.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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