Trudeau’s challenge: Turning promises into policy

Posted on in Governance Debates – Opinion
Jul. 20, 2016.   RICHARD FRENCH

Richard D. French is CN-Tellier Professor of Business and Public Policy at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa. As a junior officer in the Privy Council Office in 1974-75, he drafted two of the 16 cabinet memoranda for the Priorities Exercise.


In 1974, Pierre Trudeau’s government, barely chastened by a two-year hiatus in minority status, embarked on an Ottawa-wide exercise to determine priorities for its renewed majority.

The Priorities Exercise, as it was known, soon bloated far beyond expectations, eating up months and thousands of man-hours of reports, briefings and memoranda. In the end, well into 1975, it had swelled to 16 priorities, but the big picture remained obscure, lost as it was among departments’ favourite hobby horses and preciously abstract “priorities” such as “lifestyles” or “the built environment.” In mid-1975, the Liberals’ in-house polling removed the onus on the bureaucracy when Mr. Trudeau established the wage-and-price controls he had promised not to introduce during the previous election.

Sixteen priorities are no priorities at all. Justin Trudeau is following in the traces of his illustrious father, imagining that more and better ideas will somehow evolve into more and better policies and programs, without much thought about how that latter process might work out. We have Mr. Trudeau’s mandate letters, which show unequivocally a kind of manic ambition married to a naive optimism. His letter to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs lists no less than a dozen “top priorities” for her department alone, and this is no exception. Task forces, commissions, advisory councils and reports have been established in all directions. But climbing upon one’s steed and riding off to slay every windmill in sight ignores the deflating but entirely credible dictum of the British cabinet minister Nigel Lawson that “to govern is to choose. To appear to be unable to choose is to appear to be unable to govern.”

Good intentions are not enough. Next year, the calls to account for the deficit between word and deed will begin in earnest for the government.

The development and implementation of policies draw upon resources which remain in chronically short supply in any government: analytical capacity; legislative drafting; financial resources; ministerial time; cabinet time; parliamentary time; competent program management; often provincial co-operation; and always political capital. “Consultation” simply aggravates such constraints. The new government seems not to have grasped these hard realities, but to wish them away. It may be possible to ignore, say, financial constraints, for a time, but all this comes home to roost over the life of a government.

Of course, we are told that the government is going to school on “deliverology,” the Tony Blair government’s attempt to mitigate the constraints outlined above. But one of the lessons of deliverology was the setting, not the mindless multiplication, of priorities. Deliverology is simply the latest in a continuing flow of fads and fashions that invade both the private and public sectors with metronomic regularity. They may well do some good, but they never revolutionize government or business because the enduring challenges in both sectors are deeply rooted in a human nature highly resistant to fundamental change, in institutional inertia and – in a democracy – in the additional constraint of democratic constitutions rightly focused upon legitimacy rather than efficiency.

The Trudeau government is filled with attractive, intelligent and well-meaning people, whose presence in Ottawa has lightened the atmosphere that a gloomy and graceless Conservative leadership had created. The question is whether this opportunity is going to be wasted or exploited. The indications are ambiguous at best; symbolic politics, at which our Prime Minister is proving a master, will work for only so long before voters want to see promises turn into policies and programs.

A friend who has spent 40 years in and around government now represents a major professional association in Ottawa. He tells his board of distinguished practitioners, each one eager to share his or her inspiration, “We have priorities so that we can say ‘no’ to good ideas.” His point is that if we try to do everything, we end up dissipating our energies and wasting our resources. I would not claim that the Trudeau government has the wrong priorities, but I know that it has too many.

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