Donald Savoie is Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton.
When I published Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics in 1999, some political aides in Ottawa insisted that I had overstated the case. I hear no one making the argument today, and for good reason. One only needs to look at the pile of e-mails that were made public from the Mike Duffy trial this week to appreciate the extent to which governing from the centre now drives everything in Ottawa, from major policy decisions down to minor management issues, if the centre decides it needs to go there.
Staffers from the Prime Minister's Office roamed the corridors of the Senate as if it were an extension of their office. Audit reports were regarded as little more than briefing notes to be carefully managed by the centre. What truly matters in government now is the ability to manage the "blame game," and it seems that only those operating at the centre have the required political clout to dictate how it should be managed. If PMO staffers think that they are free to tell the Senate how it should go about its work, one can only imagine what it must be like for ministers, their staffs and senior public servants whose careers are tied directly to the wishes of the prime minister.
We have created a two-tier system of government in Ottawa, or an upstairs-downstairs to governing. More to the point, governing from the centre has created a fault line in the government where things that matter to the prime minister and his immediate advisers are brought above the line and dealt with quickly and effectively. Only the prime minister and his advisers will decide what belongs above the fault line. It can be anything from a decision to go to war while not consulting the relevant ministers – let alone the cabinet – down to a $90,000 problem considered sufficiently important to generate 450+ pages of e-mails. Under these circumstances, why would anyone other than a career politician want to run for Parliament?
The e-mails are revealing in many ways. There is no evidence that the bureaucracy from the Privy Council Office, the Canada Revenue Agency or other departments was involved or even consulted. One would think, for example, that the CRA could have provided some advice on residence status under the Income Tax Act.
What does not matter to the prime minister and his advisers is pushed down below the fault line. Here, ministers and departments are expected to run on their tracks and not create fodder for the blame game. Here, public servants are also expected to attend countless meetings and deal with a growing array of oversight bodies that would not be tolerated in any other sector.
With Parliament losing relevance, with regional ministers no longer enjoying standing either inside government or in their region, with nothing of substance belonging to line ministers and their departments any more and with the concentration of political power at the centre, governing has become a process of political and economic elites talking to other political elites. This is where the public interest now takes shape, not through evidence-based policy advice.
Governing from the centre first took shape under Pierre Trudeau. It has only grown in scope and intensity since. We have reached the point where our national political and bureaucratic institutions have lost their way. We see evidence of this everywhere – voter participation has been drifting down for the past 40 years or so and our national public service suffers from a worrisome morale problem. Why bother voting if what matters is decided by economic and political elites talking to one another or through lobbyists, and why bother generating well-thought and evidence-based policy advice, knowing that there is no political market for it? Why bother trying to manage operations as competently as your private sector counterparts when you are told to avoid all risks in the interest of managing the blame game?
Canadians are paying a high price for this state of affairs. Governing from the centre tosses aside not only Parliament but the voice of the regions as well. Governing Canada as it were a unitary state in a country as geographically and economically diverse as Canada is fraught with danger. Not only are regional ministers now a relic of Canadian political history, provincial premiers are left on the sideline, talking to one another with little influence on national policy.
The state of Canadian democracy and the health of our political institutions require the attention of Canadians and our political leaders. They cannot be relegated to a segment of the leaders debate. Sound public policies and the ability of Canada's regions to work toward a common purpose are tied to our political institutions.
What the 450+ pages of e-mails reveal is the sorry state of our institutions. An upstairs-downstairs to governing and treating our political institutions as an appendage of the PMO is fraught with danger for democracy, for national unity and sound public policy and for the pursuit of the public interest.