Is it just me or is there something a little off about the Prime Minister’s Office lately? I don’t mean the Prime Minister himself, who has always had, needless to say, an erratic streak to him. I mean the people around him, the brain trust, the pros, the people who are supposed to keep the ship tight and the clocks wound.
Because some of the decisions coming out of there of late have been more than a little odd. Again, there will always be strange decisions coming out of any prime minister’s office from time to time. But usually these show some evidence of being the product of, well, not thought exactly, but at least intent. Whereas I’m not sure the current PMO is even aware of some of the things they’re doing.
Take, for example, the utterly baffling decision to strike two separate cabinet committees with the same name and the same mandate but different rosters of ministers: the Cabinet Committee on Economy, Inclusion and Climate A, which will consider “such issues as sustainable and inclusive social and economic development, post-pandemic recovery, decarbonization and the environment as well as improving the health and quality of life of Canadians,” and Cabinet Committee on Economy, Inclusion and Climate B, which will consider the exact same set of issues.
Better minds than mine have tried to make sense of this and failed. Maybe they were each intended to tackle a different part of that ungainly mandate? Maybe the Prime Minister likes to assign his ministers overlapping responsibilities, whether as a misguided experiment in natural selection or just for the sheer hell of it? Or maybe no one noticed until it was too late.
Then there was the equally baffling renegotiation of the Bank of Canada’s five-year policy mandate. Every previous such negotiation has consisted of the Bank sending the government a letter recommending that the country stick with the current policy of targeting 2 per cent inflation, and the government accepting it. And why not? Along with free trade and the floating exchange rate, inflation targeting is the single most demonstrably successful economic policy in the country’s history.
With inflation jumping above target in the wake of the pandemic, and with some starting to doubt the Bank’s anti-inflationary bona fides, now would have seemed a very good time to repeat the process: as a signal of the bank’s resolve to get inflation back below target, and of the government’s support for it in this regard. And, indeed, the final agreement, though it arrived months later than usual, looks a lot like its predecessors: “the Bank will continue to conduct monetary policy aimed at keeping inflation … at 2 per cent,” plus or minus one percentage point.
But then there’s that language about how the Bank should also support “maximum sustainable employment,” which is then immediately disavowed (“recognizing that maximum sustainable employment is not directly measurable and is determined largely by non-monetary factors”) only to be restated as the outcome of existing policy: “because well-anchored inflation expectations are critical to achieving both price stability and maximum sustainable employment, the primary objective of monetary policy is to maintain low, stable inflation over time.”
Does anyone think that any of this cloud of verbiage would have been there had the government not insisted on it? And what does any of it achieve except to confuse and muddle what ought to be crystal clear?
The confusion mounts when one considers who is the author of it. Generally, negotiations with the Bank, an arm’s-length Crown corporation which zealously guards its independence, are the province of the Department of Finance, which has been sometimes known to do the same. After that extraordinary cry for help from the department contained in last week’s Globe and Mail report on the eclipse of its deputy minister, the former “game-changer” Michael Sabia, it’s not immediately clear what role Finance plays any more.
“The Department of Finance,” my colleagues write, “increasingly takes its orders from the Prime Minister’s Office.” Not the Prime Minister, who “has never been a leader preoccupied with economic and fiscal issues.” Nor his Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland, who “has other heavy files on her desk” and “rarely takes department briefings.” And not Mr. Sabia, who seems to have rather disappeared.
Rather, the department finds itself answering to the Prime Minister’s senior staff, whose interest in economic policy is, to be polite, “driven by political calculations.” As if the PMO was not already busy enough running every other department.
Maybe that explains this bizarre behaviour. Overworked, understaffed, trying to micromanage every detail of every file, people get tired. They make mistakes. They forget things. The next thing you know, they’re meddling in a criminal prosecution or calling an election for reasons even they can’t explain or taking two months to recall Parliament. Or accidentally striking two identical cabinet committees.
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