Control-Freak Kingdom

Is Canada becoming a de facto dictatorship?

When I joined what media critics then called the “imperial PMO” of Pierre Trudeau in the autumn of 1976 as a policy advisor, one of the first things I did was to ask the Privy Council library for everything it had on “prime ministers’ offices” or “central agencies” plus any other readings that might help me understand the world I had just entered. I was gobsmacked when I got nothing of much use in response to my request.

Fortunately, in the years since then, the study of public administration in Canada has blossomed with scholars such as Donald Savoie, Peter Aucoin and others who have accurately explained how we are ruled by our betters, elected or otherwise. But, far from comforting Canadians, analyses such as that contained in Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom, Savoie’s comparative study of how government works today in Ottawa and Westminster, are causes for concern for any democrat.

Part of the reason for this is rooted in the astonishing speed with which fads, fashions and mutating Zeitgeists zip around the wired world of the early 21st century. Not only do styles in clothing or communicating appear to change in the twinkle of an eye, but new political and public policy fashions seem to sweep like virtual tsunamis to every part of the planet. In the Anglo-American democracies in particular in recent years, there has been an astounding centripetal consolidation of political power at the centres. It is as though an “invisible brain” of a post-modern Adam Smith is hard at work in prime ministers’ and presidents’ offices, pitilessly pulling all power into the hands of fewer and fewer people: unelected political advisors whom Savoie calls courtiers.

What the 19th-century English political philosopher Walter Bagehot called efficient constitutional entities—that is, those with real power—have been morphing into being dignified—that is, becoming largely ceremonial and powerless. The long march has stripped first the Crown, then Parliament and now the Cabinet of power. What remains are increasingly efficient and ever more powerful prime ministers’ offices with their staffs of policy advisors, media spinmeisters and pollsters, all beholden personally to the prime minister for their status and paycheques. As a result, many once great offices of state have become “dignified” shells of their former selves.

Savoie is Canada’s most distinguished chronicler of these arcane movements of the loci of political power inside the Queensway in Ottawa. His latest book is a devastating description of the growth and intensification of the prime minister’s black hole of political power in the Langevin Block. As with the originals in space, everything becomes extremely weighty when it enters the hole: all light around the hole is extinguished, and nothing ever re-emerges except through a carefully controlled wormhole.

The Canadian prime minister has become a Ruritanian king, surrounded by a coterie of courtiers and praise singers. No policy sparrow falls without the knowledge, if not the encouragement of, the PMO and its largely anonymous advisors. The prime minister makes all important announcements. Most ministers are not allowed to speak in public. Even in Question Period, responsible ministers are often made to stay in their seats while ghastly front-bench loyalists deflect questions on every subject, like nimble NHL goalies. After all, the event is called Question Period, not Answer Period: why should any answers be given? Welcome to Control-Freak Kingdom.

It is not as though we were not warned. Long ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the tendency toward anarchy inherent in democracy, a tendency he thought our leaders might one day seize upon to lead us down “a longer, more secret, but surer path towards servitude.” In egalitarian societies like Canada, deference to many levels of power has long been in decline and has now coalesced around the core of our central government. The democratic paradox is that while the ideology of the current Canadian government is one that declaims decentralization, accountability and transparency, that ideology appears to be just a populist fig leaf, designed to hide the authoritarian nature of those in charge. It is not a pretty sight.

It is partly our own fault. If Canadians permitted their federal politicians to have careers that lasted longer than the lifespan of mayflies, we would not get prime ministers like Stephen Harper or Brian Mulroney who had never occupied any office of state (such as a Cabinet post) or managed any serious business before seizing the PMO. On top of that, Canadians also need to end their strange love affair with minority governments that, by their very nature, must become control centres par excellence if they are to survive. Minority governments do not want Parliament to meet any more than necessary. Consequently, public transaction of parliamentary business shrinks and what remains becomes more dignified—and more secret. I wish Savoie had spent more time analyzing these contributing causes to “court government.”

Canadians are not alone in facing this centralizing crisis of democracy. Savoie’s study compares what has been happening in Canada with Tony Blair’s weird and rootless regime in Britain. There, journalists labelled the centralizing tendencies of Blair’s prime ministership “sofa government,” meaning that most important decisions were made by Blair and his close confidents on a sofa at No. 10 Downing Street. So great did this British Caesar become that Blair began referring to the government and the armed forces as “his,” not entities “belonging,” as they do constitutionally, to Her Majesty the Queen. Blair’s Alastair Campbell and Harper’s Ian Brodie were political aristocrats de la robe, not de l’épée, meaning they were appointed solely for their loyalty to the person of the “monarch,” not because they were members of the “nobility” of a political party or of any distinct political power base.

Canadians—and the parliamentary press gallery—are yearning for an appropriate metaphor to describe what has been happening in Harper’s Ottawa. How about the covert coup d’état or the de facto dictatorship? Some meaningful metaphor is needed soon—to stir a slumbering Canadian electorate into beginning to grasp the growing threats to their freedoms and their democracy. The court metaphor Savoie uses is too cerebral to fly.

Savoie starts his seminal study by asking how we got here. He makes his way through the recent political histories of Westminster and Ottawa as the respective governments marched inexorably toward court government. Savoie’s cruellest, but most accurate, gibe is his claim that cabinets in both Canada and Britain have become mere focus groups. The loyalty that bureaucrats and cabinet ministers used to bestow on their departments has now shifted to the person and office of prime ministers. The big regional beasts—like Allan J. MacEachen, Romeo LeBlanc or Otto Lang under Trudeau—no longer exist. They have become as extinct as brontosauruses. It is now “fall in line or fall out of favour,” as The Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin succinctly put it. Depressingly, the increasing “loyalization” of government, according to Savoie’s colleague Peter Aucoin, is “not likely to abate, let alone be reversed,” since loyalty, not competence, has become the main job qualification for those seeking to occupy the louche lounges of Langevin.

What is unfortunately missing from Savoie’s analysis of how we got from there to here is an in-depth description of how the prime minister’s political staff has been gradually acquiring more and more power on its side of the great divide between the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office. There is no question that Trudeau was the initiator of the more powerful PMO and the regular shuffling of senior bureaucrats from portfolio to portfolio. All prime ministers since Trudeau—both Liberal and Conservative—have continued that consolidation of power. So the creation of court government has always been a bi-partisan affair since it began. A “Prime Minister” Dion is unlikely to reverse the trend.

“The history of public administration,” Savoie reminds us, “is a record of a struggle between senior civil servants who would extend their authority and managerial space to take decisions versus those who would wish to hold that power in check, to impose constraints on its application.” Since my days in the Trudeau PMO, there has been a deliberate shift away from formal processes to an emphasis on the individual. Getting things done—now!—is what lay, for example, at the heart of the sponsorship scandal. More concentration of power and the continuing desire of prime ministers to cut through bureaucratic red tape means similar scandals are inevitable in the future as loyal political hacks are increasingly empowered to direct bureaucrats in their day-to-day duties. The vaunted Holy Grails of more accountability and transparency will accordingly be harder and harder to find. The result? More and more citizens—a.k.a. customers—will continue to lose faith in the ability of government to solve any important problem. Canadians should tremble when they think about how the challenge of climate change will be dealt with in this new dispensation.

At the heart of his study—chapters 5 and 6—Savoie plumbs the depths of the social capital problem in today’s society and the changing “bargain” in values between bureaucrats and politicians in the last few decades. Regarding social capital, Savoie relies on the person who popularized the concept, the American sociologist Robert Putnam—author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community—to help him understand why community organizations that focus on the broad public interest, most notably political parties, have fallen so far so fast. The public has discovered if they want something done it is wise to create a single-issue organization, or hire a skilled lobbyist in Ottawa, to remind politicians of what some people want. The once stately progress of a policy from the hands of a trusted public service, through study and evaluation at Cabinet committees and, then, presentation to Parliament for debate and passage of legislation now seems somewhat quaint. Those in the know understand this development fully and have readjusted their lobbying efforts accordingly. The vanishing borders between the political and administrative worlds are most notable where the public sphere collides with the media. “Given that the media are increasingly pervasive and capable of going virtually anywhere in government [thanks to access to information laws], there is less and less administrative space that belongs to civil servants,” Savoie notes with some bitterness.

And the voices of those who know how government works and how to influence it are now more numerous and more persuasive than ever, as Savoie explains in Chapter7. Think tanks, consultants, lobbyists, foreign governments, special advisors, media specialists and other experts have grown exponentially since my time in Trudeau’s office. Bureaucrats who then did not welcome outside advice—including, frequently, mine—cannot luxuriate in that stance any longer. When 21st-century prime ministers and their courts want to make something happen, “they move everything out of reach of the ministers, departments, and career officials and simply get it done.” And they do not put much on paper any more because of access to information laws. The media and opposition parties will therefore drill dry information holes on key issues. And future historians will live in existential despair over the systemic absence of paper trails from the past.

But Savoie may be too pessimistic. The 21st century has seen the rise of citizens’ movements to take back the night or to take back the neighbourhood from criminal elements that have metastasized into cancers on the community. In politics, citizens, members of Parliament, bureaucrats and Cabinet ministers still have the conventional constitutional ability to take back democracy. They just need to exercise their will to do this in the appropriate circumstances. The power shift must start with the prime minister’s Cabinet colleagues. Sooner or later, they must pick an issue on which to challenge the prime minister and his or her court—and then have the guts to stand up to a prime minister who can hire and fire all of them in a nanosecond. By hanging together, rather than separately, they can challenge an overbearing prime minister either to accede to their wishes or face sacking a significant portion of the Cabinet. If Prime Minister Gordon Brown is defenestrated this autumn, it will happen when a clutch of senior Cabinet colleagues arrive at No. 10 and tell him: “In the name of God, go.” A similar approach here could be made by senior ministers to Harper following an election in which he failed to improve the current minority position of his fragile conservative coalition. When these two political careers end, as they inevitably will, Canadians and Britons will breathe collective sighs of relief.

But the anti-court government movement will not succeed unless some old institutions, including what Savoie calls “empty vessel political parties,” are revived and recast. Barack Obama’s extraordinary campaign for the presidential nomination of the American Democratic Party has shown the way for Canadians. The internet and social networking websites have the power to galvanize a new generation of voters and activists to take back political power and to tap into to new sources of funding for politicians and parties. Properly used, this new electronic power might pave the way for new regional beasts to emerge and effectively counter today’s centralizing PMOs and provincial premiers’ offices. New paths to political power might even make running for Parliament a clever career move again.

Meanwhile, if we are to be stuck with court government until this demotic Valhalla arrives, Canada might consider asking Harper to emulate the French courts of the Valois and the Bourbons: some joy and frivolity need to be injected into the curmudgeonly court of Stakhanovite Steve. Life in the court of François I, for example, was a continuous party, mainly devoted to hunting stags. Despite this, the court was the centre of French political power; all major decisions were made by a much larger social microcosm that Harper has in his PMO. And the king and his courtiers prided themselves in being patrons of the arts and good architecture. Federal-provincial summits, for example, could resemble spectacular gatherings like the Field of the Cloth of Gold, complete with theatrical and musical displays. After all, if one is going to act like a monarch, one should acquire some of the more attractive attributes of monarchy. If this were to happen, Savoie’s next histoire d’alcove—the phrase the French use to describe their court histories—might be less depressing than this monumental work.