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The January 2019 edition of this newsletter included four resolutions for governance in 2019, aimed principally at Her Majesty’s Government in Right of Canada, but also in some measure at citizens of said government. These were: (1) Stand up for our democratic institutions; (2) Use social media in a responsible, civil way; (3) Make government more citizen-centric; and (4) Actually encourage innovative, risk-smart leadership in the public service.
I am tempted by sincere analysis, to say nothing of intellectual indolence, to argue that each of those resolutions – like resolutions about weight loss and reduced consumption of distilled and fermented beverages – applies as much this year as last. So, get with the program, people.
Unfortunately, my first draft to this effect was rejected by the editors with a call for “increased analytic rigor”.
Let me begin by saying that the past year was not altogether dismal on the Canadian governance front. In terms of respect for democratic institutions, Canada held an election that, if sometimes a bit shabby in tone, could nonetheless look citizens in the eye when it came to legitimacy of outcome. Despite grim forecasts to the contrary, anxieties about social media trolling, foreign intervention, and violation of Elections Canada financing rules, proved to be ill-founded, or at least exaggerated. It’s true that there were menacing signals around the conventions of government formation in the event of a minority Parliament, but in the end, these were rendered moot for at least the time being.
The election was still held under first-past-the-post rules, to the seeming chagrin only of the fourth and fifth parties and a few egg-headed pundits. And if the outcome – a government with fewer votes than the official opposition – raised an eyebrow or two it was quickly forgotten. Moreover, almost uncannily, the composition of the House of Commons will give the Government, provided it demonstrates a little circumspection, the potential for vote-by-vote majorities for several of its key electoral themes.
I would nonetheless contend that each of the resolutions identified last year still needs a lot of work. To those resolutions, I would add (at least) three new ones: (1) Follow through on the Government’s commitment (in the mandate letter to the Leader of the Government in the House) to the reform of parliamentary practice; (2) Continue reinvigorating the machinery of federal-provincial-territorial (FPT) relations, but without acting as if we were in the midst of a secession crisis; and (3) Improve the machinery for horizontal work across government departments.
Regarding parliamentary reform, a pretty extensive agenda for change is buried in the December 2019 mandate letters. This is doubly striking because (1) in its first mandate, the Trudeau Government not only failed to deliver promised electoral reform, but withdrew proposals for reforms to the Standing Orders aimed at improving decorum, fairness, and the influence of individual Members; and (2) having failed to improve parliamentary practice when they had a majority, the Government now proposes to foster changes, including individual Member independence, when it has minority status. The Government House Leader, who will have his hands full simply shepherding the Government’s agenda in a minority House, is further charged with fostering a more collaborative approach, allocating more time for Private Members’ Business, eliminating the use of whip and party lists so that the Speaker can more freely determine who will speak, providing more resources to committees, promoting more free votes, and updating the Parliament of Canada Act“to reflect the Senate’s new non-partisan role”. Wishing you extra good luck with that last one, Minister.
All of the above are salutary and greatly to be wished for. All are “simple” matters of the House changing its own rules, or even of the Liberal Government changing its own level of party discipline (which, by the way, was previously attempted by a not conspicuously successful Paul Martin). But it remains to be seen whether any of this is likely to be realized in the context of a minority Parliament, wherein discipline and strategic management are traditional watchwords.
On FPT relations, it is conventional wisdom that its “machinery” (principally formal FPT summit meetings and the public service support for them) withered under Prime Minister Harper and has been at least partly rebuilt by the current PM. By naming a deputy PM for this first time in 15 years and making her his FPT chief, the PM has gone a step further in putting some space between himself and the provincial premiers. This is probably for the best, since it allows the players to dial down the profile and rhetoric a notch and focus on a more functional and constructive approach to business. But one word of advice to my political betters in the Government of Canada: show respect for provincial concerns without buying into the rhetoric of crisis. There is some policy space between Ottawa and the West, to be sure, and yes, reports of the death of the Bloc Quebecois were evidently greatly exaggerated. But Britain’s war government had the right idea here: keep calm and carry on.
Then there is the issue of improving horizontality in government. I’m guessing that this is not a lively topic of conversation in most of the nation’s pubs, but for those of us concerned with the mechanics of public administration (and really, isn’t that everybody?) it’s a critical challenge. As I insightfully observed in last year’s resolutions, the silos across departments are a barrier to service delivery. And if you read the mandate letters (which I’m sure you have) you’ll note that practically every important issue, from climate change to science policy to Indigenous affairs, crosses departmental lines and involves Ministers working together. There are some discernable moves in the right direction here – notably in the creation of a centre of expertise on implementing major transformation projects across government, together with the call to “implement lessons learned from previous information technology project challenges and failures…” (can you say Phoenix boys and girls?). But historically our efforts on this front have been timorous and unimaginative. Let’s hope that the experts in the centre of expertise do better, and let’s hope they get support from the centre of government, whose commitment is essential to any proposals to cross departmental lines.
Finally, not a resolution really but an observation: I am personally delighted, or at least a little intrigued, by the Government’s plan to create a Canadian Centre for Peace, Order and Good Government (aka the Dudley Do-Right Institute). The world needs more Canada, and Canada needs more bodies dedicated to cultivating and disseminating its expertise in aspects of democracy, rights and governance. That said, any attention and practical support that might be forthcoming to a certain existing Institute so dedicated would be, in my personal opinion, most welcome. Just saying.
Aurele Theriault, Chair of the Board of Directors of theLearn More
With contribution from IOG Fellow Dr. Sara Filbee. This articleLearn More
With contribution from IOG Fellow Dr. Sara Filbee. We areLearn More