Governing Liberal Style
In late December 2021, the Prime Minister’s Office released the collection of ministerial Mandate Letters. These documents outline departmental and ministerial priorities for the mandate ahead.
The letters reflect the government that produced them. There is no shortage of ambition, even audacity.
The prime minister has remained true to the focus of his election campaign and Throne Speech, focusing on pandemic management and recovery, reconciliation and social equity issues, climate change and the environment, and improved access to housing.
The mandate letters set out an agenda that is heavily oriented towards social rather than economic policy; even the equity the government seeks to deliver is more social than economic.
Spending to Fix
A good portion of the economic policy in the letters relates to transitioning a net-zero emissions economy – albeit with a respectable measure of pro-innovation and technology initiatives in the mix.
The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance is admonished to keep an eye on the government’s fiscal health. There are few measures to significantly raise revenues and even fewer to reduce expenditures.
This is not an austerity agenda: many initiatives explicitly call for additional spending and even those that don’t will in many cases require it. Presumably a day of fiscal reckoning will come, but this is not that day.
A Reworked Rewind
Even aside from the fiscal mindset, we see multiple inversions of a conservative agenda, at least as manifest by the previous government. Net-zero has plainly supplanted the ambition to become an “energy superpower”. Law-and-order, pro-gun policies have yielded to “justice strategies” aimed at removing cultural and gender biases in the police and courts, increased funding for the Court Challenges Program, and confiscation of guns where “red flags” arise.
Efforts to keep the public service, and its scientists, focused on operations and implementation have yielded to a supposedly science and data driven approach to analysis by a diverse, digitalized workforce that benefits from flexible and equitable working arrangements.
A Renewed Public Service Relationship
While directed at their political leaders, these mandate letters direct Deputy Ministers, Assistant Deputy Ministers, Directors General, and the rest of the public service in, well – their direction. Coupled with fiscal updates, these are the marching orders of the public service.
However, how do you implement vast change, in a changing landscape, with a static public service?
The public service must constantly renew itself – a notion which has been evoked in throne speeches for years to help Canadians enjoy a quality of life envied by other countries.
Surely, there are nods to this within the letters. Striking a cooperative tone is a start, as is the recent report by the Clerk of the Privy Council [HYPERLINK] and its focus on the future of work.
Digital efficacy, replacing systems, improved service capacity – all of these remain components of a renewed public service.
But is this enough? Is it a complete vision of a 21st century public service? Arguably, it misses the mark.
To meet the challenges of declining trust in government and colliding forces of globalization and disruption, a responsive public service requires structural changes that are far more reaching than outlined in this batch of letters.
Our Problem or Theirs?
Much of this agenda has been in place, with mixed success, since 2015 – but a few things seem to have gone by the wayside.
Direct links to the infamous “deliverology” approach have been quietly dropped. Not much remains of the democratic reform agenda – although the Intergovernmental Affairs Minister is tasked with some open-ended efforts to improve the electoral system.
The enhancement of Canada’s parliamentary democracy looks to be limited to better digital connectedness by parliamentarians, renewal of the perennial promise of more free votes, and undisclosed updates to the Parliament of Canada Act to reflect the Senate’s non-partisan role.
Overall, the government appears more concerned with the democratic shortcomings of others than of itself.