Cory Morgan: The Mounting ‘Yes Minister’ Moments Are Not So Funny

Cory Morgan: The Mounting ‘Yes Minister’ Moments Are Not So Funny
A poster of the 1980s British sitcom comedy "Yes, Minister." (Public Domain)
Cory Morgan

Satirical comedy is at its best when it can straddle the fine line between believability and comical exaggeration. A British sitcom in the 1980s called “Yes Minister” struck the balance perfectly as it followed the follies of a fictional cabinet minister named Jim Hacker. The show is carefully crafted to never identify the party of the minister, who was the head of the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs. The result is a timeless comedy that can be applied and compared to any government of a Commonwealth nation.

Minister Hacker is an idealistic but sometimes bungling man who wants to make substantive change. His top staffer holding the title of Permanent Secretary discreetly thwarts the minister’s attempts to challenge the status quo. Information is often withheld from the minister while staff members pursue their own agendas. When a crisis erupts, a lesser character in the ministry tends to fall on his or her sword to protect the minister. It is an entertaining comedy yet a dark one as its plot lands so close to home.

Cabinet ministers are supposed to be among the most powerful people in a nation. They are appointed by the prime minister to oversee and manage the largest departments of the government. They take on roles of great authority and are entrusted with the management of policies impacting the entire country. Somehow despite being in such revered positions, the best defence for a minister embroiled in a scandal is to deny knowledge of it and responsibility for it. Staff members take the blame and the minister escapes unscathed. We have seen this plot unfold countless times at all levels of government and with every political party.

The sponsorship scandal of the mid-1990s plagued the Liberal government at the time. Yet while the Gomery Inquiry identified numerous senior civil servants in various departments being at least cognizant of wrongdoing, it could never be proven Jean Chretien himself had any knowledge of the affair. Senior Liberal Party official Jacques Corriveau eventually took the fall for the affair.

When it was revealed that Stephen Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright had cut a cheque for $90,000 to try and create the impression that embattled Sen. Mike Duffy had paid back his inappropriate Senate expenses, Harper denied any knowledge of the affair. His plea of plausible deniability was accepted while Wright was fired.

While these types of stories are all too common in politics, they are usually spread out a bit over time. Of late though, ministers claiming ignorance in controversial issues have been dominating the news.

While CSIS sent reports on CCP funding election candidates to the Privy Council office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he was never briefed on the issue himself.
Former Public Safety Minister Bill Blair claimed no knowledge of CCP targeting MPs and blamed CSIS for not informing him.
Former Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan apparently forgot to check his emails and thus didn’t know about the catastrophe unfolding as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s staff were apprised of the transfer of notorious killer Paul Bernardo to a medium-security prison months ago but Mendicino denies having been informed himself.
The office of the prime minister was also made aware of the Bernardo transfer but again, apparently, staff declined to inform their boss of the situation until May 29, the day Bernardo was transferred.

The plausible deniability card can only be played so many times before citizens lose trust in the government. When the prime minister and his senior cabinet ministers appear to be constantly kept in the dark on important issues by their own staff, their competence must be questioned. Who is really running the show?

Of course, the other possibility is that the ministers were indeed aware of all these scandals and are not being truthful about it. Deception is even harder to swallow than ineptitude.

Democracy relies on public trust, and cynicism is spreading among citizens. The ultimate way politicians can be held to account is at the voting booth and if a cynical population won’t come out, things will only get worse.

In one episode of “Yes Minister,” the minister of foreign affairs pleads ignorance to a change in government overseas because his television was broken. It was a laughable segment. Today, ministers are claiming they knew nothing of some scandals until they heard about them on the news.

The comedy of yesteryear is unfolding in real life today. It’s not funny when it’s no longer fictional.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.