Egotist (n.) A foolish person, more interested in herself than me. — Ambrose Bierce
It has been said, and with considerable authority, that there are few pastimes more congenial than the contemplation of one’s own virtues. As long as we remember that our own eye is the kindest that will ever light upon us, the practice is harmless. It is generally a mistake, however, to publish the findings of self-inventory, as it invites the world to measure the chasm between what we think of ourselves, and what others — decidedly more scrupulous on the topic — think of us.
The great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero was beyond all dispute an ornament to the Roman state, and appreciated as such, but even Cicero raised a blister on his reputation when he issued the immortal self-flattery: “O Happy Rome, to be born during my Consulship.”
Autobiography is the sincerest form of hyperbole, and it has always been thus. These and kindred thoughts stumbled into prospect when I read The Post’s Blatt, Smith, and Ivison’s varied accounts of the gorgeous after-tenure of once governor general Adrienne Clarkson, occasioned by the revelations of her tumid incursions into government expense accounts. In one of these fine writers’ reports there stood this quotation from her former Excellency’s website:
“Madame Clarkson is universally acknowledged to have transformed the office during her six years at Rideau Hall and to have left an indelible mark on Canada’s history.”
Now, for example, were a pirate reading this, this is the point at which he would let rip — “Well, shiver me timbers, that’s a bit much” — for even an unschooled marine brigand would lift an eyepatch at so generous a self-assessment. And even beyond the pirate class, mere ordinary citizens would likely call a halt at the same spot, and sadly conclude that Madame Clarkson was reading her career at Rideau Hall with too powerful or kindly a magnifying glass.
The full modern monarchy itself, Elizabeth II and all her fledglings, is but a shadow regency, as we should say, all shell and no turtle. The centuries have left it hollow in (almost) all function but the ceremonial. The vestige of it that we in Canada retain, more from tradition and courtesy than use, is then but the shadow of a shadow. I cannot see therefore how such a doubly void institution can be “transformed” by any given appointed occupant. What is there, in substance, to transform?
And from there to launch a claim that one’s tenure, as a surrogate, in a symbolic role, has or could leave an “indelible mark on Canada’s history” is to enter regions of fantasy best left to amateur novelists or professional used-car salesmen. As in Christmas festivities, one should never mistake the bauble for the tree.
On the matter of her expense-claiming over the 13 years since Madame Clarkson inhabited the role, people are correct in raising their eyebrows (in sync with their gorge) at the scale of sums claimed. The Post’s more recent account tells of charges, for single years, that breached the high-water mark of two hundred thousand dollars! I think we have shipbuilding projects that cost less.
What kind of job is it, that has no duties, but for which there is an expense budget of one-fifth of a million dollars? An absolutely ideal one maybe. But in the ordinary run of things, volunteer activity, public service, “giving back” — call it what you will — does not summon such compensatory sums from the public vaults. It rather confuses the idea of “making a contribution” with receiving one.
All have acknowledged there are “no rules being broken here.” And indeed, that is a song we have heard on other jubilees, such as during the sagas of Mike Duffy’s residential woes, and the less epic travail of Bev Oda’s orange juice. “No rules broken” is a maxim of last resort when the public’s view of things takes a dark turn.
I do not think there can be any rational objection to providing the public with a detailed accounting of the million or millions of expenses claimed, and the functions or activities that required such splendid supporting expenditures. It might even be worth exploring whether the Confederation can sustain so burdensome a contribution as Madame Clarkson is willing to oblige us with.
What seems most to come out of this affair, the scale of expenses claimed after the official duties were ended, is that old familiar and already-cited-by-many refrain of “I am entitled to my entitlements.” To put it simply, there’s something very condescending, even offensive, about the entire business, however — if we have to think of it this way — legal it is.
Canadians feel, and feel correctly, that there is a certain class of dignitaries, cultural figures and pseudo-celebrities who assign themselves an importance to our public life, who see themselves as “significant” to how the country runs, in a way that is all out of proportion with the actual facts of the case.
So far as I can tell of the most recent train of occupants, David Johnston looks to be most people’s idea of the very model of a modern governor general. Mr. Johnston has, with no reluctance whatsoever, promised to provide the details on what expenses he has incurred since leaving Rideau Hall. He seems to have kept his balance in the role, and has been purposefully modest and unassuming.
Will Ms. Clarkson be issuing a like account? Surely we cannot expect less from one who has transformed the role, inscribed our history, and in at least in one department — expenses — set the benchmark for all others, both fore and after.
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