In political terms, Scott Brison is often the minister of thankless tasks. The President of the Treasury Board handles internal government rules and processes, cost controls and contract negotiations with public servants.
Now Mr. Brison is taking on one of those things governments have launched over and over again: a deregulation drive.
On Wednesday, Mr. Brison and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc were at a union hall in Scarborough, Ont., to call for provinces to harmonize building codes and to announce the federal government is doing things such as modernizing meat inspection rules and standardizing what can be called vodka in Canada.
If that sounds like a hodgepodge of little things, it is. But business groups insist it is important. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, citing the number of federal government regulations on business, issued a report in May entitled “Death by 130,000 Cuts.”
But governments get applause for launching deregulation drives and don’t see a lot of political advantage in keeping them up. So they don’t.
You probably don’t remember the Red Tape Reduction Commission, though it was announced with hoopla by then-prime minister Stephen Harper in 2011. It was led by Maxime Bernier, then the minister for small business and now leader of the fledgling, right-wing People’s Party.
The Commission held 15 round tables in 13 cities, an online consultation, produced a 47-page "What was Heard” report, then a final report that led to a lengthy 2012 cabinet directive on regulation – internal regulation on restricting regulation.
But in May, the Chamber of Commerce concluded the progress of initiatives such as that in both Ottawa and provincial capitals has been outpaced by the growth of more regulations.
Think of it: the Conservatives’ commission, led by a guy who basically doesn’t believe in any regulation on business – Mr. Bernier – didn’t succeed. What hope is there for a Liberal minister?
Mr. Brison argued in an interview the government was already revamping the regulatory process, pointing to a series of regulatory changes outlined in Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s Fall Economic Statement that are already under way.
“Before we started talking about this, we’ve already been doing it,” Mr. Brison said.
Annual legislation, he said, will update a series of regulations every year. The laws that govern some major regulators will require them to consider things such as competitiveness and to do cost-benefit analyses. That, Mr. Brison said, will change the way the system works.
It is true there is some regulatory-reform zeal at the moment.
Canadian regulation used to require vodka be made from potatoes or grains. So Canadian distillers who made it from beets, for example, could call it vodka in the U.S. or Europe, but had to call it something else here. Dairy Distillery, based in Almonte, Ont., called their liquor, made from milk sugars, Vodkow – and when the firm’s president, Omid McDonald, met Agriculture officials to ask for a change in the regulations, he was surprised the government, already working on the issue, announced the change the next day.
And business groups, of course, applauded the launch of a new effort at tackling regulations. Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty said in an interview regulations, and the costs of compliance, are a major competitiveness issue for Canadian business, and one that can be tackled without spending money.
Mr. Beatty, himself a former federal minister, has seen these kinds of initiatives before. He has some hope this time, he said. Mr. Brison has been an advocate of reducing regulation since he was a Progressive Conservative MP in the 1990s. “But ministers come and go,” Mr. Beatty noted, so he hopes changes baked in with legislation will be more lasting.
Maybe. But there are reasons why these campaigns come and go.
Regulations aren’t all mindless examples of red tape or easily changed vodka definitions. Many are health, safety or environmental rules some group or interest lobbied to put in place. There are so many little things that weeding out wasteful ones is a big, never-ending task.
Business groups applaud when governments launch drives to cut red tape but then the initiative is full of little details, and no political rewards, so commitment wanes. If Mr. Brison breaks that mould, it will be a surprising accomplishment. Politicians usually can’t stick to thankless tasks.