The creeping corruption of our system

STEP ONE: Growing power of political parties

Party LogosOne of Canada’s leading experts on democracy is Prof. Peter Russell, Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto.  His slim volume, Two cheers for minority government, makes a brilliant primer on the current threats to our democracy.  Russell writes that the main culprits are political parties and excessive concentration of power in the hands of the leaders of parties:

“In the modern era, a number of factors have combined to make this fusion of powers a real and present danger to the democratic capacity of parliamentary government.  First and foremost among these is the emergence of disciplined and well-financed political parties whose leaders employ the techniques of mass advertising to win and retain power.  This development is aided and abetted by techniques of public management that downplay the deliberative role of elected representatives and Parliament’s role in holding government responsible for its decisions.”  (Two cheers for minority government, Toronto: Emond Montgomery, 2008, p.167)

In our early history, political parties were not a factor.  The concept of “party discipline” (i.e., all MPs voting along party lines) was unknown.  Sir John A Macdonald used to refer to his Members of Parliament as “loose fish.”  He would be astonished to see MPs in the major parties today line up and vote as they are instructed – every single time.

Political parties are not even mentioned in our Constitution.  They are not a necessary part of our system.  If I was inventing democracy from scratch, I would not have invented political parties.

The steady growth in the power of political parties started in 1963 when Parliament accepted a new rule that larger parties, defined as those with more than twelve members, would receive public resources, for better salaries for their leaders, whips and other officers, as well as funds for a research staff.

The next change was in 1970 when the Elections Act was changed to put the political party affiliation of candidates on the ballot.  Up until that time, voters only saw the personal names of prospective Members of Parliament – not the political party they represented.  The change was intended to give voters more information, but in making that change, the question was asked, “how will we know for sure a candidate represents the party they claim they do?”  And here was where a mistake was made.  The Act was changed to require that the leader of the party sign the nomination forms for each of that party’s candidates to ensure they are acceptable to that party.  In one fell swoop, the Elections Act gave leaders the power to threaten and control members of their parties.

Parties continued to gather power and control, including adopting rules within the parties themselves that leaders could only be elected or removed by the parties’ membership assembled in national conventions.  This may sound more democratic than the system in other Commonwealth countries, but it had the unintended consequence of giving a Prime Minister in Canada more power than a Prime Minister in the UK.  In the UK, or Australia or any other Commonwealth nation the Prime Minister can be deposed by his or her caucus (as was the Iron Lady herself, former PM Margaret Thatcher removed by her caucus and replaced with John Major, and as occurred recently in Australia as well.)

STEP TWO:  Growing powers of PMO

PMOThe Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in 2013 is an all-powerful central agency.  In a majority government, it has total power and control – able to cancel programmes, send war ships, negotiate and sign treaties, or, in the case of Kyoto, withdraw from treaties – all without bothering to involve Parliament.

Prior to 1968, the Prime Minister’s Office did not exist.

In principle, all MPs are equal in our system.  In fact, the Prime Minister used to be considered “first among equals.”  Early Prime Ministers didn’t consider it a full-time job, traditionally serving as Minister of Justice and Prime Minister at the same time.  When Canada was in the Second World War, the role of Parliament shrank and the role of Cabinet grew.  When the war was over, power did not flow back to Parliament as a whole.  The theme in the story of our democracy is of steadily growing centralization of power.

It was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who invented the Prime Minister’s Office.  Under his predecessor, Lester B. Pearson, the office had had a few file clerks and stenographers.  Trudeau wanted to be able to coordinate the activities of his Cabinet members so he brought on an expanded political staff.  Every Prime Minister since has expanded the role of the office, now universally called the “PMO.”

If previous PMs incrementally increased the power of the PMO, Stephen Harper has taken it to a whole new level.  It spends approximately $10 million/year from the public coffers, with no accountability.  All of its functions are partisan and in the interests of the party in power hanging on to that power.

Regardless of who fills the PM’s chair, or to which party they belong, this much power in the PMO is unhealthy.

STEP THREE: Reduce the respected professional civil service; eliminate the evidence

MuzzledWhile there wasn’t such a thing as a powerful PMO until 1968, since 1940 there has been an office to coordinate the civil service, the Privy Council Office (PCO).

The role of the Privy Council Office is to provide non-partisan advice, over-see the civil service and provide a sound basis for public policy.  It must maintain a complete distance from partisan control.  I recall Alex Himelfarb, when he was Clerk of Privy Council (the title for the head of the civil service, essentially Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office) referring to the critical division between the PMO and PCO as a “Chinese firewall.”  Messages could pass in between PMO and PCO, but the Privy Council Office could never be allowed to become a tool of the political arm (PMO).

It is a tricky relationship.  Obviously, civil servants must take instructions and implement policy under different political parties.  After an election and a change in the party in power, the civil service must pull together the appropriate advice and fulfill the direction based on instructions from the new political masters.

What is not acceptable is for the PCO to “cook the books” to help buttress a political argument.  The PCO has to stick to the facts, not invent them for the government in power.  Which is exactly what I think is now happening.

The firewall between PMO and PCO is down.

Public policy making is now only a shadow of good government.  The outward appearance of a functional Cabinet government supported by a non-partisan civil service is being maintained, but the reality is that nothing is normal.

What makes me think this?  Some examples come to mind:

  • The 2012 Environment Canada report on greenhouse gas emissions, claiming that we are half-way to our target (607 MT by 2020), is essentially an exercise in public relations.  It is out of whack with what the Commissioner for Environment and Sustainable Development calculated, as well as contradicting the National Round Table on Environment and Economy (which has been terminated).  It says things like “by 2020 our emissions will have declined to 720 MT a year,” when 720 MT is higher than levels in 2010.  The 2013 report says the emissions will have risen to 734 MT, but the spin still says we are “on track.”
  • The report from Transport Canada to the Joint Review Panel on the Enbridge Project was proclaimed in a Transport Canada press release as saying that super tankers can safely carry bitumen crude from Kitimat BC to Asia.  The report never mentions, however, any of the navigational risks, or includes the amount of time and distance it takes for a tanker to stop, or comments on any one of a few dozen key considerations.  In fact, the report does not say oil can be safely transported.  It merely says there are no “regulatory difficulties.”  It reads like a report from people being told what they must report, not a department that actually did a good faith review.
  • The claim that no one in Statistics Canada objected to elimination of the Long-form Census even when it was very clear the department had pushed back.
  • Recently, a colleague mentioned a friend at Justice Canada who nearly quit.  The lawyer was asked for a legal opinion, but was told in advance what the opinion should say.

What this means is that the civil service is completely corrupted by political pressure.  The first phase of this process was the muzzling of scientists, then the massive lay-offs, ensuring that morale is at an all time low.  The next step was to ask for reports that make a certain point, instead of asking for an objective assessment of the evidence. Government reports are no longer non-partisan.