It seems that Canadians no longer see value in the honourable resignation. That’s surprising since so many of our political and civic customs have emanated from the Westminster model, which, traditionally, has attached great importance to the act of resignation. It is one thing for a politician or prominent person, whether in the public or the private sector, to apologize for making a mistake; however, if no consequences follow that apology, the act of contrition rings hollow. Under these conditions, forgiveness is seldom forthcoming. The perpetrator is left exposed — weak and hoping the offending incident will simply disappear. It rarely does.
An honourable resignation need not be the death knell to a political career; in fact, it has the ability to wipe the slate clean and allow for a resounding comeback. British politics is rife with examples where the most blatant scandal has laid waste to a minister’s career but that politician later returns and exceeds all expectations. Think of Harold Macmillan and the Profumo affair, Anthony Eden and the Suez crisis, or, most famous of all, Winston Churchill and the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. More recently, we’ve seen the resignations of Alan Duncan, Margot James, and Philip Hammond over Brexit. All of these people knew that a mistake on their watch, or other matter of principle, called for an immediate resignation. They understood that it would be unacceptable to put personal privilege above the greater civic good. Clinging to power — as one’s peers chant “For God’s sake, go!”— would simply be dishonourable.
Canadian politicians, by contrast, seem intent on avoiding resignation at all costs. If they can somehow weather the storm, they believe, they’ll come out further ahead. They fail to recognize that by digging in, they lose credibility and almost certainly undermine their future prospects. And should crisis happen more than once, it wipes out any likelihood of a long-term career. It is, in fact, the kiss of death. Yet again and again we witness Canadian politicians apologizing, explaining, even grovelling with excuses — anything to avoid the decent and strategically intelligent moves of admitting to a mistake, apologizing, and resigning.
We all make mistakes, and many of us are taught at an early age that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. But if there are no consequences for our mistakes, we learn nothing. Refusing to take responsibility and own the proper consequences allows one to adopt a sense of entitlement, to believe that errors are pardonable when you occupy a high office. To believe one is immune to the consequences is to invite repeat offences. Far too often in Canadian politics, resignation is viewed as a weakness, the ultimate failure, an admission that all is lost, a reputation in tatters — a permanent hell.
Are some calls for resignation more legitimate than others? Of course. Being caught with one’s hand in the till is beyond any excuse. To be ensnarled in a conflict of interest that entails personal gain should be an automatic case for resignation. In Britain, one will face calls for resignation if caught lying in Parliament. That’s hardly the case here. Mistakes that arise on a minister’s watch but with which the minister had no direct involvement — admittedly, that falls into a grey area where much depends on the seriousness of the case. Was the minister lax? Should the minister have known what was going on? Sexual peccadilloes garner much attention and titillation, but while the revelations are inevitably embarrassing for the parties involved, there may not be a need to resign unless there are questions of national security at stake. When in doubt, however, it is better to resign and live with the comment “Well, at least they did the honourable thing.”
The ramifications for the body politic, let alone the nation, of not resigning can be a corrosive waste of time and energy, prolonging unnecessarily the failure to resolve issues and ultimately leading to a denigration of the country’s traditions, even laws. Devoid of decent behaviour, all activity becomes a focus on money, power, and votes, all subject to gross manipulation. To see such a result, one need only look south of the border, where politics and civility are too often swept aside by money and power in their crudest forms.
Leadership in any enterprise, and especially in politics, requires the highest set of principles reinforced by example. Leaders who operate technically within the rules but who employ clever machinations dilute the spirit of the law and diminish a nation’s ability to promote collective decency. As citizens, we should expect and demand proper behaviour from our representatives; it’s in our collective interest to do so. And knowing when to resign should be part of that behaviour.
We ought to insist that politicians who commit mistakes admit their failures, apologize, and resign. And for those decent and competent persons who do resign — or those who are forced out by superiors under the cover of resignation — we should accept and even welcome their return to office after a suitable period of redemption, recognizing they are now ready to contribute to the common good as wiser and more experienced public figures. This would be infinitely more healthy for Canada than standing by and watching a politician issue yet another feigned apology and then insist that his or her remaining in office is for the good of the country.
Scott Griffin is the founder of the annual Griffin Poetry Prize.
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