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“When a tree falls,” says author Jocelyn Murray, “it resounds with a thundering crash; and yet a whole forest grows in silence.”  That is what has been happening with the ongoing saga of Rob Ford these days, and it’s a troubling portend, not just of political corruption, but of citizen ambivalence.

There is something so remarkably foolish about it all.  Those from the Right side of the political spectrum have remained largely silent because … well, he’s been one of their poster boys.  And those on the Center/Left have piled it on, reminding everyone they could concerning the sheer moral depravity of the man.

But it is the citizenry that appears surprisingly mute – not in the coffee shops or other social gatherings, but in their inability to collectively express the kind of outrage required that says that we expect better and demand better.  Alas, citizens are fascinated, even upset, about what they are witnessing, not just with the Ford saga, but in the sorry state of politics collectively in our land.  But instead of determining to pull together to change the narrative, they remain isolated and frustrated.

It is absolutely correct to expect a proper ethical code of conduct from those who represent us.  This has been a subject well played out in the media in these past few weeks.  However, what continues to be overshadowed is the sheer level of manufactured incompetence coming from people like Ford.  It is one thing to suffer apparent lacks of moral judgment, but it’s another entirely to just not be up for the job in the first place.

When Rob Ford stated last week that he had saved Toronto roughly a billion dollars since his predecessor’s last year (David Miller in 2010), he played the perception game and in so doing degraded the public space even further.  In reality, city spending went up about $200 million per year under Ford, and taxes and fees went up by another $200 million.  The issue here isn’t really about whether such revenues are good or bad, but whether it’s possible for citizens to get a complete story when politicians play such games.  His ethical lapses in judgment are revealing, but such pronunciations about budgets form the greatest insult to the intelligence of the citizenry.

All the recent conflicts between politicians and citizens have been heavily slanted toward ethical lapses, and these are surely troubling.  Yet they distract us from the real virtues required to effectively manage the public space and the private contribution: competence and transparency. 

It is not the declining stature of the politicians that forms the greatest danger to our communities, as it is their inability to get on with the task of running those cities and regions effectively, especially during troubling economic and social times.  While citizens can easily be sidetracked by political scandals, their real difficulties are lack of jobs, homelessness, lack of investment, access to healthcare, climate change, lack of youth opportunities, and declining public infrastructure.  At the very least, we expect attention to such details; at the very most, we hope for their solutions.

Should we not expect our representatives to tell us the truth as opposed to slanting it?  Is the requirement for transparency not more essential than spin in these troubling times?  Shouldn’t our economic struggles cause cooperation instead of contention?  This isn’t some great Shakespearean tragedy we are witnessing on some stage and then head off home.  It’s real life and our communities are facing real challenges.  While we may quibble about the sordid morality plays filling the airwaves, we should at least agree on the fact that we require capable people to fill our offices of power.

We are guilty of asking too little of ourselves.  We find it remarkably easy, natural even, to blame our representatives and yet we put them there.  They have no real answers to our unemployment situation, but we either continue to support them because of the party we serve or because we have just given up altogether.  We turn away in disgust at all the corruption trials, the hanging around with nefarious types, and the constant role-playing to populist politics, and in that very act of walking away we poison the wells for our children’s future.  We will continue to dote on our kids at Christmas, providing what they require, but we won’t fight for their cheaper post-secondary tuitions, their future healthcare requirements, their ability to purchase their own homes or to have meaningful jobs.  Our children will be entrusted with billions of dollars in public infrastructure deficits and our way of dealing with it is to walk away from the public space instead of fighting for it – for them.

Apathy is a kind of public trap, with no challenges and therefore no rewards.  It just is and the consequences are inevitably bone chilling.  Most of us care, just not enough, and if we maintain that attitude then we need to prepare ourselves for more mini-tyrants overrunning our public space.  This isn’t about Left or Right, is it?  It’s about competence and our ability as a people to overcome our challenges and build on our past successes.

The simple reality is this: it’s not really about Rob Ford and his ilk; it’s about us, and how much incompetence we are willing to endure.  We got what we voted for and now we’re paying for it.  We need better politicians, but our only way of achieving that target is to be better citizens.