The federal government’s decision to turn to a new process to award two major shipbuilding contracts breaks new ground. No one attaches more importance to precedents than governments, suggesting that what we saw we’ll see again.
Some 125 years ago, Woodrow Wilson published what would become the most often quoted article in the political science and public administration literature. Set in an American political setting – he would later become president – he wrote: “Administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices.”
Governments in the Western world have been trying to give life to Wilson’s suggestion ever since with limited success. The shipbuilding process comes very close to the target. Politicians established the policy, defined the process, allocated the resources, then rolled down an iron curtain between themselves and the process. By all accounts, it worked.
The process is not without implications. The anonymous public servant central to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility took a back seat. François Guimont, deputy minister of public works, was front and centre before the cameras not only explaining the process but also declaring who the winners were. Politicians were nowhere to be seen in the $33-billion announcement. Indeed, the first politician to appear on camera was an opposition MP applauding the process and declaring victory. Prime ministers and cabinet ministers of eras past must have given their heads a shake at the sight.
The process also raises a number of fundamental questions. What if we discover down the road that the process or the decision was flawed? Who will be responsible and answerable before Parliament? The minister or the deputy minister?
In the absence of national political institutions that can accommodate Canada’s regional perspective (the House of Commons always falls far short on this front), the shipbuilding process may become de rigueur when Ottawa has to deal with thorny issues with a strong regional component (and there’s never a shortage of that in Canada).
The message from the shipbuilding decision-making process is that merit and politics in Canada are not always compatible. It will now be very difficult for future governments to revert to sheer political numbers from the Commons to strike major procurement decisions. The solution for Canadians is clear – accept the new process or support the reform of our national political institutions.
Donald J. Savoie holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton and is the author of Power: Where Is It?