Most experts in the world agree that strong socio-political, administrative, legal and regulatory institutions are what underpin social harmony and prosperity in successful societies. I have suggested, more than once, that China is making a strategic blunder by undermining the (limited) progress it has made in strengthening its legal and administrative institutions as it tries to maintain the centrality of the Party in the governance of China.
Now I see an excellent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail by Professor Donald Savoie, who is the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton and the author of the new book Democracy in Canada: The Disintegration of Our Institution, Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics, and many books in between, in which he says that Canada’s institutions are in trouble, too. Professor Savoie is an internationally acclaimed scholar and an expert in the intersection of politics and public administration.
I hope that the article will serve as a partial blueprint for Andrew Scheer to follow when, in about a month, he takes over the Government of Canada.
“Canadians can be proud of how their national political and administrative institutions operate,” Dr Savoie says, “at least when compared with those of other countries. Canadian representative democracy, however, is not without problems. A 2017 survey by Samara Canada reveals Canadians have little trust in their members of Parliament, that politics repels more Canadians than it attracts and that the legitimacy of our representative democracy is at risk … [but] … Canadians also increasingly believe that they have little control over government and, worse, that even their politicians have little control over events as they take shape. If Canadians wish to locate political power, they should not look to the Parliament, political parties, Cabinet or the public service. The health of our democracy is tied at the hip to the health of our institutions, and all institutions that underpin Canadian democracy are in need of repair.” Amen to that!
Donald Savoie provides a brief look at several of our institution, beginning with Parliament, itself. It is, he says “the one legitimate institution in which all communities in Canada can be heard through their MPs …[but] … It has lost its ability to hold government to account … [and, he says, and I agree that] … It is no longer able to contribute to meaningful policy debates and it has precious little to offer on the important challenges confronting our country. You need not take my word for it,” he adds, because “Several books and reports prepared in recent years by current and former members of Parliament document the decline of Parliament and all offer a call for action that has been and continues to be ignored.” He explains that reforming parliament, restoring accountability has been promised by Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, but all failed because, as he points out the “system” ~ put in place as he explained, years ago, in his book Governing from the Centre, by Pierre Trudeau and Michael Pitfield ~ makes it too easy for prime ministers to become virtual dictators and to win reelection, too.
Pierre Trudeau (and Pitfield) centralized political power in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and bureaucratic power in the Privy Council Office (PCO) which also serves the prime minister.
Professor Savoie explains that “I know of no one who is prepared to make the case that Parliament is able to hold the government to account on budget matters, or that MPs play a meaningful role in reviewing the government’s spending plans. This is one of Parliament’s most important responsibilities. However, I know many credible voices who argue the contrary. Sheila Fraser, who served as Canada’s auditor-general, argued before she stepped down that MPs are “failing Canadians on one of their most fundamental roles, the scrutiny of yearly spending estimates,” according to an editorial that ran in the Hill Times in 2011 … [and] … MPs and aspiring MPs do come in handy at election time. But their role is to sing from the hymnbook written by party leaders and their courtiers. MPs and aspiring MPs, meanwhile, are to do as they are told and avoid creating problems for their leader. It is widely accepted that political parties are running on empty in shaping policy prescriptions. The result is that all political parties now reflect their leaders rather than having leaders reflect their parties. It explains why political parties are bleeding loyal members and have been turned into little more than election day and fundraising organizations. In short, party leaders, their pollsters and political consultants now run election campaigns. They insist that the best way to win an election is to run five different campaigns – one in Atlantic Canada, one in Quebec, one in Ontario, one in the Prairies and one in British Columbia. But as soon as the election is won, the national policy mindset returns in Ottawa so that all initiatives have to fit in nationally prescribed policy and requirements … [but then] … Things do not improve for MPs once elected. Dennis Mills, a former MP and businessperson who regularly meets with chief executives, summed things up well: “CEOs no longer know who their MPs are, but they sure know who their lobbyists are,” he told me the other week. It only takes a moment’s reflection to appreciate that Canadians cannot afford lobbyists to roam the corridors of power in Ottawa on their behalf. Therein lies the problem. Their MPs are not allowed in to be an effective advocate for the communities they represent or hold the government to account.” And that, I believe, is why so many Liberal MPs, like Andrew Leslie, found it easy to walk away. The ethical issues were, I suspect, just the catalyst. It is the idea that an MP’s primary role is to vote as (s)he’s told by the PMO that I think has driven many good men and women out of politics. Edmund Burke would be appalled.
One of the first initiatives Andrew Scheer should undertake is to affirm that the PMO and PCO are quite separate, even, sometimes, at odds with one another. The PMO, quite rightfully, does politics; the PCO manages policy. Of course, the two paths cross … a lot. But a good chief of staff in the PMO and a good Clerk in the PCO, both no doubt high achieving, über-smart individuals, will (not should, will) be able and willing to keep to their separate and distinct domains while advancing the government;s objectives, each in her or his own way.
He should also announce that every item promised in the Throne Speech ~ every time the Governor-General says “my government will” ~ will be a matter of confidence for the government but that, in every other matter, he will allow free votes in the House of Commons. He should also announce that budget implementation bills will be shorter, simpler and focused, even if that means there has to be several of them instead of one huge omnibus bill that even includes changes to the criminal code that were only mentioned tangentially in the budget ~ like the deferred prosecution agreement proposed for SNC-Lavalin.
Donald Savoie says that “Cabinet ministers have also lost standing – both collectively and as individuals. It was a senior minister in the Chrétien cabinet who once argued that cabinet is not a decision-making body, it is a focus group for the prime minister. I invite those who believe that Canada still has cabinet government to ponder this: Two key decisions regarding Canada’s deployment in Afghanistan – one by a Liberal government, one by a Conservative government – were made in the PMO with the help of a handful of political advisers and civilian and military officials. The relevant ministers – of National Defence and Foreign Affairs – were not even in the room, according to Janice Stein and Eugene Lang’s 2007 book, The Unexpected War.” This is what worries me the most. Our whole system of government is based on the notion that the Queen’s Privy Council, the cabinet for most purposes, provides good government because ministers are accountable for their departments, and, in fact, the whole of government is based on the idea of a ministry, of many departments, that acts in a coherent manner, guided by the first minister. That hasn’t been the case for decades. In 21st-century Canada, cabinet government is a bit of a joke. Does anyone really believe that Bill Morneau (and his officials) really believe that neverending deficits are a good thing when a recession looms? That’s pure PMO. Sure, even I agree that when interest rates are at historic lows it makes some sense to borrow for long term projects, like maintaining or building bridges, seaports and airports. But that’s not what happened. We borrow in order to throw money at the PMO’s pet projects. Does anyone believe, after the Jody Wilson-Raybould/SNC-Lavalin affair, that the administration of justice in Canada is done according to the Shawcross Doctrine? Cabinet government is broken, in Canada. What we have is what Professor Savoie described, in 1999, as Governing from the Centre, where power is concentrated in one place: the Prime Minister’s Office.
The second thing I want Andrew Scheer to do when he becomes prime minister is to restore both power and responsibility to the cabinet. The current system ~ again, put in place by Pierre Trudeau and Michael Pitfield in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s ~ which saw backbench MPs become “nobodies” and reduced ministers to what Donald Savoie calls “a focus group for the prime minister” needs to be reformed. The new prime minister needs to start doing this by promising his newly appointed ministers that they (aided by their civil service deputies (who he also appoints, advised by the Clerk of the Privy Council)) will manage their own departments in accordance with their mandate letters and with the priorities agreed and resources assigned by the whole of the cabinet. They will also be fully accountable for their departments and ministers will resign (or will be fired) when their departments make major blunders. The two, accountability and authority go hand-in-hand, one cannot have one without the other. It was more convenient for Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau to have neither, but that has weakened democracy in Canada. I don’t care how big the combined PMO/PCO might be or how strong and smart the prime minister might be: modern government needs a working hierarchy in which departments and agencies respond, with considerable latitude and independence, to a central “master plan.”
“It will be recalled,” Professor Savoie says, “that Mr. Trudeau pledged in the 2015 campaign to turn around what Trudeau père had started and lessen the PMO’s grip on the government policy and decision-making processes. All evidence, however, points to the contrary … [instead] … Mr. Trudeau did what no other prime minister ever tried to do. He did away with regional ministers, further attenuating the voice of the regions in Ottawa. He did this ostensibly because he could not make the concept work in Ontario, or Quebec … [but, he explains] … These two provinces do not need regional ministers – more than half of its cabinet is from these two provinces including the prime minister and minister of finance, Bill Morneau. Throughout history, we had powerful regional voices in the federal government decision-making process – as examples, think of Don Mazankowski from Alberta, Don Jamieson and John Crosbie from Newfoundland and Labrador, and Allan J. MacEachen from Nova Scotia. Today, there are no such powerful voices being heard to speak to the interest of Western or Atlantic Canada.” In fact, of course, as we saw in the SNC-Lavalin affair and in the pipeline and environmental policies, Prime Minister Trudeau is his own all-powerful Québec lieutenant and “regions” are defined only as urban areas where the Liberal vote is secure.
An Anglo-Canadian prime minister needs a visible and powerful Québec lieutenant, but even Jean Chrétien used Marcel Massé and later, and less successfully, Alfonso Gagliano and Martin Cauchon in that role. But regional ministers should always be part of a two-tiered cabinet ~ which has existed for decades, in practice. The art of cabinet making in Canada is deliciously complex because of regional, linguistic, ethnic and other considerations – witness Justin Trudeau’s (welcome) decision to have a gender-balanced cabinet even though that meant that some really first-rate men had to be pushed aside to make way for some really second-rate women. But the ‘inner cabinet’ needs to be fairly small (maybe as few as 10 members, certainly no more than 20), the outer cabinet can be as large as the political vagaries of cabinet making require. While the inner cabinet will be powerful because it will include the most politically powerful ministers, the prime minister might still want to have a priorities and planning committee of cabinet that includes ministers who are personally loyal to him and his programme.
Professor Savoie also notes that “The public service has also lost standing in recent years. Bureaucracy bashing has taken a toll and so has the arrival of permanent election campaigns constantly fuelling the blame game. We have added one new officer of Parliament after another, all looking over the shoulders of public servants. This has made the public service more cautious than ever. As one former senior deputy minister said to me, “If the public service was now asked to ice a hockey team, it would ice six goalies” … [and] … The federal public service has also become much more Ottawa-centric than at any time in the past. Today, more than 40 percent of federal public servants work in Ottawa. Forty years ago, it was 27 percent. The argument is that Ottawa needs more and more staff to feed material to the Prime Minister’s Office and other central agencies and to manage the blame game that plays out on the news channels and social media. The result is that the delivery of government services, handled mostly by regional offices, is suffering. Almost the entirety of the senior federal public service is also located in Ottawa, fuelling further regional alienation.” Surprisingly, to some, the role of the public service is to provide service to the public. A bit more than 2½% of the Canadian public lives in Ottawa-Gatineau. It was fair that 25% of the public service was devoted to serving the centre and only 75% to serving Canadians, at large, but the centre is, now, too big. In fact, the advice being given to the ‘centre‘ (PMO, PCO, Finance and Treasury Board) might be better if it had more regional input from senior officials who are personally invested in what is happening in Victoria, Saskatoon, Québec City and Moncton.
Professor Savoie has many other worthy ideas, including the media and the courts, but he concludes by saying that “Canadian representative democracy needs to be on guard against mediocrity, complacency, poor journalism, low regard for politicians, a debased public service, a sense that citizens have no control over their government and that this country’s national political institutions are unable to reflect Canadian society and its regions. People instinctively sense a problem with the state of Canadian democracy …[and he says, and I agree, fully, that] … What is needed is a prime minister who is as firmly committed to fixing our political institutions as former prime minister Pierre E. Trudeau was in patriating Canada’s Constitution. Nothing else will work, as history so clearly shows … [and] … Canadians can influence political will – and now is the time. If citizens ever have a say, it is during an election. I encourage Canadians to press candidates when they come knocking on their doors to see what they are prepared to do to make Parliament more relevant, to reduce some of the powers prime ministers and their advisers have and to deal with growing regional alienation – particularly in Western Canada but also in the Atlantic region. Quebec is no longer the only threat to national unity.“
Finally, he says: “If we are going to reverse the disintegration of our political institutions, we have little time to lose. On October 21, Canada will elect a new Parliament. Both Canadians and the media need to push those who offer to serve, particularly party leaders, to say how they propose to breathe new life into our national political and administrative institutions.“
Canada is drifting, under Justin Trudeau, farther and farther away from the nation of strong institutions ~ parliament, the courts, the bureaucracy, the media, and so on ~ that we have taken for granted since Sir Wilfred Laurier was prime minister to one that is governed by unelected, shadowy figures in the Prime Minsiter’s Office and the Privy Council Office, supported by a bloated, centralized bureaucracy and a compliant media. It is time for real change. We need to undo 50 years of political meddling with our institutions, especially parliament, the cabinet and the public service, and return to them the power and influence they were meant to have.