Adam Dodek is a founding member of the University of Ottawa's Public Law Group and the author of The Canadian Constitution (Dundurn 2013).
Every new government preaches change and reform. However, most new governments soon find the levers of power so attractive that they conclude that such changes are no longer necessary. The Harper government demonstrated this in spades. The challenge for the new Trudeau government is to avoid falling into this same pattern. Can Justin Trudeau's new government meet the challenge of the need as well as the public appetite for reforms to our democratic institutions?
Mr. Trudeau's democratic to-do list is a long one. Over the past decade, many of our key democratic institutions have been attacked, ignored or willfully neglected by the Harper government. To be clear, in many cases – like the concentration of power in the PMO – Mr. Harper did not create the problem, but continued and exacerbated it.
On the PMO, Mr. Trudeau must avoid the temptations of his predecessors to overly concentrate power in his small coterie of advisers and micro-manage all government files and messaging the way that Mr. Harper did. Like Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, Justin Trudeau has been handed a strong team of MPs by Canadians from which to fill out his cabinet line-up card. Mr. Trudeau must choose his cabinet carefully and wisely but then let them do their job. He must also rely on the advice and expertise of the federal public service.
Sadly, the phrase "public service renewal" has become so cliché over the past two decades as to have become nearly devoid of any content. The federal public service is in need of far more than renewal. It needs resuscitation, reinvigoration and a metaphorical group hug. Many public servants have felt under attack and operated in a culture of fear over the past decade. The new Trudeau government must show them that their advice will be valued, even if not always followed.
However, the public service is also in need of an intervention. For far too long before the Harper government took office, the federal public service has been championing secrecy over disclosure, bureaucratic resistance over cooperation and risk management over public engagement. True renewal will require new and strong leadership, a long-overdue updating of access to information laws and moving to a culture of proactive disclosure. The results of the election show that Canadians were strongly dissatisfied with the government of Stephen Harper. It is probably not a stretch to say that the results can also be interpreted as an indictment of Ottawa and the federal government generally.
Mr. Trudeau succeeded electorally because he was able to connect to Canadians, often through the media. That openness to the media is critical for a well-functioning democracy; the Prime Minister and members of his cabinet should not get to pick and choose when and who to speak to in the media. The Prime Minister and the members of his cabinet hold office as a public trust to Canadians and have a duty to engage with the media on a daily basis.
In the House of Commons, Mr. Trudeau has his work cut out for him. His father famously said that MPs were "nobodies"; Mr. Trudeau will have a large caucus and will face a strong opposition. He must allow them to be "somebodies" and treat dissent as welcome, not as an act of political treachery.
On the Senate, Mr. Trudeau must follow through on his promise to change the way that appointments are made. He must also seize the opportunity to change how the Senate does business. During the transition, he should call in the Senate leaders from both the Liberal and the Conservative parties and issue them a basic ultimatum: either they get their own house in order or he will get the House of Commons to get it in order for them: by passing strict legislation on Senate oversight, transparency and disclosure.
This is only the beginning of a democratic reformation. But it is a necessary beginning.