Jesse Snyder, writing a few days ago in the National Post, said that “several former senior Finance officials say … [that] … the Trudeau government has been unacceptably opaque in its handling of the national purse .. [and this] … reflects deeper disagreements in Ottawa between the public service and the Liberal government’s lofty spending plans.“
“Unacceptably opaque …” what a wonderful phrase; it reminds me a bit of the “conversation” in Australia in 1987 between then lawyer and later Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Sir Robert Armstrong, then the British Cabinet Secretary (Clerk of the Privy Council in our terms) in the ‘Spycatcher‘ trial: “Turnbull (Q): So that letter contains a lie, does it not? Armstrong (A) : It contains a misleading impression in that respect. Q: Which you knew to be misleading at the time you made it? A: Of course. Q: So it contains a lie? A: It is a misleading impression, it does not contain a lie, I don’t think. Q: What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie? … A: A lie is a straight untruth. Q: What is a misleading impression – a sort of bent untruth? A: As one person said, it is perhaps being economical with the truth.” I think there is nothing much to choose between being “economical with the truth” and being “unacceptably opaque.” The very senior officials who spoke, on and off-the record, to the National Post are saying that Justin Trudeau is lying to the people of Canada.
According to the article, the “worries include what some officials describe as an increasingly centralized power base within the Prime Minister’s Office, which intensified under the Harper government following the 2009 recession and has continued under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.” I recall hearing, in the wake of the Great Recession, from people whose views I trusted, and still trust, very real concerns that Prime Minister Harper’s laser-like focus on balancing the budget by 2015 was very good Conservative politics but, given the state of Canada’s economy, risky public policy. In fact, Prime Minister Harper, a good-enough journeyman economist himself, was proven to be correct: a spending diet leading to a balanced budget was just what the doctor ordered.
The “people whose views I trusted” sound rather like the people with whom the National Post spoke. They were “six former Department of Finance officials, including two former deputy ministers, who expressed concern over a lack of fiscal transparency in Ottawa at a time of unprecedented deficit spending …[and, those] … people stressed that there has always been some degree of disagreement between the PMO, who makes decisions based on political calculations, and the much more staid Department of Finance, which has long acted as a sort of sober second thought in Ottawa.” What they are saying is that “political calculations,” by which they mean advocating for policies that will help the Liberal Party to win the next election, have overwhelmed the voices that seek to do what’s best for Canada. In Ottawa, in 2021, it’s Trudeau über alles!
“But those inherent divides have deepened in recent years as the Trudeau government fixates on expanding the social safety net, said David Dodge, who served as deputy minister of finance from 1992 to 1997 before becoming governor of the Bank of Canada. Trudeau’s policies have broadly centred around redistribution, with much less regard for tackling difficult economic questions or making efforts to cut unnecessary spending … [and, he said] … “The policies of the government in power, and the proclivities of the current prime minister, are not particularly oriented towards the hard work of generating economic growth, and that can make things difficult for the Department of Finance.”“
But, further, the article goes to say, “a lack of accountability around those spending measures has raised eyebrows. That was particularly the case when Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled her fiscal update on Nov. 30, where she promised between $70 billion and $100 billion in stimulus spending over three years while declining to detail where a single cent of the funding would go … [but] … “The lack of transparency around the government’s intentions in its economic and fiscal forecast is not acceptable in a democracy,” said Don Drummond, who held several senior positions in the Department of Finance over his 23-year career. “I think everyone should be concerned about this” … [of course, he’s absolutely right to say that, but] … Eleven days later, Ottawa announced an entirely new package of spending, this time $15 billion in subsidies to help Canada exceed its Paris climate targets. While developed economies including the U.K. and Australia have tabled budgets during the pandemic, the Liberals have only provided high-level spending in two separate fiscal “snapshots.”“
It is not too surprising when people of the stature of David Dodge and Don Drummond go “on the record” to criticize policy choices. It is both surprising and worrying when they explicitly name politicians and use phrases like “the proclivities of the current prime minister“ being “not acceptable in a democracy.” Then, I think, we have a real problem.
There is, Dr Dodge said, ““a lack of discipline and a lack of focus on actually delivering … [and he explained that the Team Trudeau seems content to] … send out a press release and that’s seen as the end game, whereas the real issue is in actually governing.”” For all that many, many senior officials didn’t like the tight control that the Harper government exercised over departments, especially Finance, I’m pretty certain I never heard a whisper about Team Harper being all fluff and no delivery.
So, I see two major critiques of the Trudeau regime here:
- “A lack of discipline” when it comes to actually governing ~ they are all about the “political calculations” that are involved in electioneering and they are great at sending out press releases (which are, too often, simply copied and then presented as “news” by lazy or bought-and-paid for “journalists”) but they don’t have the mental and moral wherewith-all to roll up their sleeves and govern Canada FOR Canadians; and
- “The Trudeau government has been unacceptably opaque in its handling of the national purse.” The second is said to be, and I agree with the assessment, “not acceptable in a democracy.”
It seems to me that the only logical conclusion one can draw is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is “not acceptable in a democracy” and he and his government need to be thrown on to the political trash heap where both belong.