A Short History of Political Corruption

Commentary, Government, Gerry Bowler

As public attention in Ottawa focuses on accusations of skullduggery and jiggery-pokery in the awarding of government contracts to certain charities, it may be useful to remember that corruption is as old as civilization. Those in authority, from the loftiest of imperial thrones to the smallest of tribal councils, have always used that power to enrich themselves and their associates, punish their enemies, and pursue their agendas in ways that harm the public. 

In the Old Testament, the prophet Samuel warned the people of Israel what would happen to them if they came under the rule of a king: He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

Ancient peoples were always devising ways to avoid such abuses of power. Some forced oaths of office on their rulers, hoping to put the fear of the gods in them. Athens rotated officials, never leaving them in power too long; they instituted juries of hundreds of men so that intimidation or bribery would be less effective. Sparta set two kings in office, each to keep an eye on the other, and created a panel of ephors to watch both the kings. The Roman republic had severe laws against election bribery, a crime it called ambitus (the root of our word “ambition”). But no matter the safeguards, corruption managed to thrive. “Whatever is the cause of human corruption,” Samuel Johnson observed, “men are evidently and confessedly so corrupt, that all the laws of heaven and earth are insufficient to restrain them from crimes.”

Varieties of Corruption

Human ingenuity does not always bend toward the beautiful and the good; far too often clever minds are employed to devise new ways of picking the public purse.

One of the most common forms of corruption throughout history is nepotism, a word derived from the Latin for “nephew”. Renaissance popes, who were supposed to be celibate, managed to sire large numbers of illegitimate children who had to be lavishly provided for. Their sons, discreetly referred to as nephews, were given rich church appointments, Italian dukedoms, and lucrative papal contracts. In time, nepotism came to apply to any misdirection of funds to family members of all sorts. 

Closely related is cronyism, illicitly favouring one’s friends, such as when a government official offers a contract to a favoured recipient without any competitive bidding, or when a partisan political operative is made an ambassador or Senator as a reward. The latter tactic is near-universally practised but is reprehensible when the lucky winner is not the fittest person for the job.

Then there is the plain old bribe, sometimes called “pay to play” or “kickbacks”. This can range from tens of millions of dollars slipped to cabinet ministers or bureaucrats who are in a position, for example, to award a government contract to buy military equipment or issue a permit for oil exploration, right down to the “little envelopes” containing cash that are necessary in many countries to obtain medical appointments, register a child in school, or get a government form that should be freely available on request. Sometimes a bribe need not come in cash form but in the promise of lucrative employment after a bureaucrat or general leaves government service.

Shakedowns by customs officials or traffic policemen are a common hazard around the world. A variation on this theme in North America is the use by municipalities of the police as revenue earners. Some towns are notorious for stopping tourist vehicles on the flimsiest of pretexts; some require a quota of tickets to be issued; the timing of traffic light cameras can be profitably manipulated, and worst of all are places where the police budget is generated by traffic fines.

Government corruption need not involve outright bribery. Political parties in power often advance their cause in a number of dishonest ways, such as by denying public funds to opposition supporters, by pandering to special interests such as ethnic groups or economic cartels, or by rigging electoral boundaries. Votes can be won in particular areas by spending taxpayers’ money on bridges to nowhere, phantom airports, or human rights museums. The use of civil service employment to reward party faithful still goes on in Canada. It was once common to see jobs as mundane as snow plow operators or road graders change hands after an election, but now one is more likely to see friends of the ruling party appointed to the myriad of boards, councils, and NGOs that have proliferated. Perhaps most consequential for democracy is the ability of political leaders to appoint judges whom they believe to be favourable to their agendas.

Canadian Examples

Our country’s history is not free of corruption scandals. In the years following Confederation, it was clear that Canada needed to build a trans-continental railway, an enormously expensive undertaking and the Conservative government of John A. Macdonald proved to be open to large-scale bribery, with the Prime Minister himself proclaiming “Send me another $10,00.” Those who today clutch their pearls upon learning of a private fund set up to support the former leader of the Conservative must also have been appalled when they learned that Liberal prime ministers Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson were the beneficiaries of under-the-table stipends from supporters. Since then Canadians have been treated to the Airbus scandal, the Air Ambulance Scandal, the Adscam (or Sponsorgate) scandal, Harbourgate, Tunagate, Shawinigate, Casinogate, Bingogate, and more recent brouhahas in the House of Commons.

It is no secret that deep-seated patronage networks have long existed among Canadian political, bureaucratic, and business elites; these are informal, though hardly invisible. It would be easy to compile a list of the twenty-first century’s version of the Family Compact by seeing who marries whom, what private schools they went to, and who sits on the boards of powerful organizations. In 2019 the Corruption Perception Index downgraded Canada, moving us out of the top 10 least corrupt nations, largely because of the ease of money laundering and the SNC-Lavalin affair.

What to do about it

We live in a high-trust culture and that is too precious an inheritance from our ancestors to lose. Thus even the perception of corruption hurts our democracy. 

It should be taken for granted that our politicians are aware of the distinction between public money and responsibility and their own private good, but we have seen in Ottawa and every province that this is not so. Legislation in Canada is robust enough; more legislation is unlikely to be the answer to our slide down the transparency index. What is essential is that journalists be curious enough to be on the lookout for the log-rolling, rigged bidding, single-source contracting that seems to be all too common. (The fact that Canadian media outlets are now reliant on government handouts makes this, perhaps, only a pious hope.) Most important is that voters continue to be outraged at corruption, be willing to complain, and to punish the offenders at the polls; a world-weariness and cynicism that it was ever thus are the biggest incentives for the dishonest and sleazy to believe they can get away with it.  


Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. 

Photo by Akshar Dave on Unsplash