Outsiders doing work of elected politicians

TheStar.com – columnists – Outsiders doing work of elected politicians
December 06, 2007
James Travers

OTTAWA – Boston Consulting, a respected group that guides lost managers through the featureless landscape of matrixes and paradigms, has a mission statement that’s also a favoured Stephen Harper strategy.

“Our goal,” it declares, “is to produce competitive advantage through unique solutions.”

Twice in the last week alone the Prime Minister found innovations that will please those who think government should be more like business and worry those who believe Parliament should be more democratic. In appointing special advisers to develop winning environment and language policies, Harper is effectively contracting out government by commissioning outsiders to do the work of elected politicians and civil servants.

CEO’s have long known the benefits of hired guns. Along with experts to help manage change, executives get an easily controlled process that provides insulation if something goes wrong.

Harper isn’t the first to import those methods – commissions and inquiries are familiar responses to political problems. Still, in elevating the practice to new highs, he’s exploring new lows for ministers, backbenchers and bureaucrats.

By naming two former premiers to whisper in his ear, Harper is replicating the process now charting Canada’s way forward in Afghanistan while muting other nagging voices. In sending Quebec’s Pierre Marc Johnson and a handpicked panel to Bali, Harper is breaking tradition by excluding party critics from the climate change delegation. Instead of relying on cabinet, committees and a language czar to advance bilingualism, the Prime Minister is turning to former New Brunswick Conservative premier Bernie Lord.

Those moves make as much sense – and as little – as asking former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley to head a group reviewing the Kandahar mission. In propping credible public figures in the policy window, the Prime Minister draws some of the partisan poison out of contentious issues. But it also makes Parliament seem less relevant. Canadians watching the ethics committee make a mess of questioning Karlheinz Schreiber will grasp some of Harper’s purpose. Starved of resources and split by party bickering, committees struggle to perform core duties, including guarding the public purse, let alone act as judge and jury on something as sensitive as cash payments to a former prime minister.

Add Harper’s palpable distrust of civil servants – except those who jumped from Tory back rooms – to the rising complexity of files that cut across federal departments as well as national borders and the result is ample incentive to tilt towards command and control executive management.

Academics and others following the exponential growth of the democratic deficit see something else: a self-fulfilling prophecy. Given the choice of strengthening Parliament or their grip on power, Liberal and Conservative prime ministers consistently reinforce the centre at the expense of ministers, mandarins and MPs to whom leaders are at least theoretically beholden.

Donald Savoie, arguably the most astute chronicler of a changing system, argues that Ottawa is rolling back history to recreate a kind of royal court. Complete with courtiers who serve at the Prime Minister’s pleasure, it trades accountability for efficiency.

Convenient for prime ministers, that back-to-the-future structure asks an awkward question of those forced to the democratic fringes: “What, exactly, do you do?”

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