Has Centralization of Power to the PMO Put Canadian Democracy on Life Support?

Don Lenihan has a must-read column up today, on how centralization of power to the Prime Minister’s office over the past several decades has atrophied the connection Canadians — especially youth — had with our government, and what he believes this could mean for Canada’s system of democracy:

In the early 1970s, the Trudeau government adopted a new generation of governance tools to make it more effective in the modern-day world. The approach involved rigorous new management practices, and the formation of complex plans — “strategies” — which the prime minister would push forward, using the power of his office.

What wasn’t clear at the time was that execution of these strategies also called for more Executive control over the system. As this came to light, it set in motion a decades-long centralizing trend during which succesive PMOs clawed ever more power away from Parliament.

While opposition parties condemned Trudeau, Mulroney, Chretien and Harper for weakening democracy by weakening Parliament, these leaders saw increasing centralization as the unavoidable cost of getting things done. And, all things being equal, perhaps they were right.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Indeed, a whole new chapter may be opening. There is growing evidence of a ripple effect that is now reaching other parts of the body politic. If so, centralization may be having a far more profound impact on our system of government than anyone realized.

Falling voter turnout, especially among youth, is a striking example. Elections give citizens a legitimate and orderly way to challenge and change governments. Without them, our democracy would quickly revert to some form of authoritarian rule.

So why don’t young people vote? In particular, why don’t the ones who are protesting tuition hikes in Quebec, or those in the Occupy movement, take their concerns to the ballot box? Don’t they realize that their protests are calling into question the legitimacy of our democratically elected governments?

Yes, they realize this. That is exactly the point. They are taking to the streets because they don’t believe the political system works. They don’t believe it creates real accountability. Once elected, they think a government is essentially free to do what it wants, so they see no point in voting.

If this were just uninformed prattle, it would be annoying, but we would find ways to cope with it. Unfortunately, young people are making a serious point and the evidence for it is mounting.

Take Bill C-38. When replying to charges that it was a Trojan horse, the Harper government argued that it had to get these measures passed quickly to support the economic recovery. In other words, democracy was deemed less important than effective governance.

Okay, but where does this end? We learned a long time ago that, in a contest between democracy and effectiveness, nine times out of ten democracy will lose. Eventually, people will stop trusting the government at all.

Sound familiar? If not, let me spell it out.

It is one thing for opposition parties to accuse the government of being undemocratic. It is another when people take to the streets to do so. It is profoundly disturbing when a whole generation no longer sees a point in voting–or at least it should be.

The lesson here is simple: too much centralization undermines legitimacy. The more scope a government thinks it has to act unilaterally in the name of effectiveness, the less legitimacy those actions will have.

[D]emocracy was deemed less important than effective governance.” Think about that as the cult of libertarianism continues to court a new generation that is both frustrated with status quo politics and has been well-conditioned to respond positively to free-market fundamentalist boilerplate.

Features and bugs, redux.

x-posted at The Agonist

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These Are Not Your Father’s Tories. Seriously.

“I worked for (Mulroney-era environment minister) Tom McMillan, who was a very red Tory. I wrote speeches for him. We never checked his speeches with the PMO. He’d get up to answer in Question Period. He didn’t have a script for how to answer. Brian Mulroney was not telling his cabinet members what to say, syllable by syllable… . I look at Peter Kent and I think my God man you had a great reputation. You were a great journalist. You won the Robert Kennedy Prize for journalism. And you’re going to stand up in the House and read the lines?”

– Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, from an interview with Dan Gardner

The F-35 boondoggle in context: This “is oppressive, dictatorial regime-building that would do any petro-state proud”

We are definitely not in Kansas anymore, Canuckistan — and Michael Harris says that we just had our “Wizard of Oz moment”:

The curtain has been well and truly whipped away from the PM’s self-promoting deceptions and he is revealed for what he is: a power-tripper on a mission to give Canada an extreme makeover that only the super-rich and the semi-comatose could endorse. And he is doing it with virtually no debate, creating something of a new phenomenon in Canadian politics; sole-source public policy.

We have Peter MacKay to thank for the official revelation — belated though it was. The minister of defensiveness has finally dished after weeks of embarrassing prevarications. It turns out the whole Harper cabinet was in on the F-35 whopper, an exercise that both the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Auditor General saw for what it was — a studied deception.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office had an even better description of the same process stateside. The Pentagon’s top weapons’ purchaser, Frank Kendall, said the plan to buy the F-35 was “acquisitions malpractice.” In this country, two sets of books were produced – one containing the real scoop, the other the “communications” version for the Great Unwashed. It turns out interim Liberal leader Bob Rae was dead right — the PM and cabinet knew they were lying to Canadians about the true costs of the F-35 during an election and Stephen Harper is ultimately accountable.

This is not “strong, stable government” a la Harper’s PR mantra. It is oppressive, dictatorial regime-building that would do any petro-state proud.

It is also the de-confederation of the country and the death spiral of independent information bearers. The war machine is more important than the social safety net. Canada can apparently have $45 billion jets and $800,000 military fly-overs, but must rein in the Old Age Supplement and cut food inspectors. The PM can blow $45,000 in public money on a baseball junket (why on earth was Harper’s official photographer along for the ride?), but 19,000 public servants must lose their jobs. And if these institutional thugs lose a seat in an election they lust after, there’s a plan B – gerrymander the riding, as they may well do in Saanich-Gulf Islands, where Green Party leader Elizabeth May knocked off former cabinet sock-puppet Gary Lunn.

As for parliament, what’s parliament? Something to ignore, shutter, or the favored option, to geld.

Happy 1 year anniversary, Canuckistan — oh, and re: what Naomi Klein said:

For now, I’m happy, as noted, to let the Harpercons keep tripping over themselves; but that doesn’t mean we can’t reinforce (firmly and forcefully) the enormity of Harpercon efforts to subvert our democracy, and what it ultimately means for Canadians.

(Image: dbking, Flickr.)

In Praise of NDP PR Jiu-Jitsu

Paul Wells on how it’s best sometimes to simply shut up and let your opponent’s own negative momentum take them down:

Harper is certain to keep portraying the NDP as the only bunch of witless ideologues in sight. In quiet moments Conservative strategists say that, if they ever tire of whacking Bob Rae, they will seek to portray the NDP as either extremist or incompetent. And indeed the newest feature on the Conservative party website is about “Mr. Mulcair’s NDP Team.

But in the Commons, it is not the NDP who have been looking like circus geeks. Tom Mulcair reads his questions from his little wooden lectern. Unlike generations of Liberals, he almost never yells up a lung in Question Period. Peggy Nash, same story. Paul Dewar, probably more methodical now than a year ago. Finally this week a New Democrat confirmed to me that this is strategy, and it is designed precisely to blunt the expected Conservative attack to the effect that only Conservatives are fit to be let near the good china. The New Democrats want to put restraint, method and diligence in their own column.

When I used to ask the Liberals, when they were the Official Opposition, why they didn’t calm down a bit in QP, they would complain that gesticulating was the only way to get on the news. And indeed the calmer New Democrats are not getting a lot of space on the news. What is getting space is Bev Oda’s global OJ adventure, Stephen Harper’s 70-year digressions, and private members’ bills that seem inspired by the Danielle Smith playbook of political success. Which may explain why the NDP does not begrudge the government its time in the spotlight.

h/t

The Real Bev Oda Scandal: Politicizing (& Corporatizing) Canadian Foreign Aid

That now-infamous taxpayer-subsidized luxury hotel switcheroo in Mother London? Small potatoes.

Don Cayo:

[A]nalysis by Fraser Reilly-King, a policy analyst at the non-profit Canadian Council for International Co-operation, shows substantial cuts to foreign aid in last month’s federal budget are aimed mainly at the same kind of underprivileged countries [that were removed from CIDA’s priority list in 2009] – the poorest places in the world. And funds for the better-off political darlings are mostly protected.

Reilly-King’s figures project, starting next year, a winnowing-away of funds for inter-national assistance from an all-time peak of $5 billion this year to $4.6 billion in 2014-15. Over the same period, the share of Gross National Income that Canada spends on aid will shrink to 0.25 per cent from 0.34 per cent, which is less than half the never-attained target set by former prime minister Lester Pearson in 1969.

Wait — it gets better:

The cuts will be felt by 13 cur-rent recipients, he says, eight of them in Africa. One of the countries to be cut off completely is China, a fully justified – if not overdue – move given its rapid economic expansion. But the others to lose out completely include Cambodia and Nepal, which are making progress but were late in catching the Asian prosperity wave, as well as dirt-poor Zambia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Niger.

Yet Ukraine – which has been a priority country for years only because of strong lobbying by Canadians of Ukrainian descent – and fast-rising, upper-middle-income Peru and Colombia are unaffected.

Other countries to duck the axe are Bangladesh, which is very poor, and Vietnam and Indonesia, which are both making rapid progress on their own. Reilly-King points out all the unaffected countries are high on the Harper government’s list of places where it wants to see stronger trade ties.

There’s brazen, and brazen — Oda, proud Harpercon that she is, certainly earns the italicization (and then some):

In an interview with my Post- media colleague Elizabeth Payne earlier this year, Oda candidly conceded that she didn’t separate at all Canadian trade and foreign policy goals from our aid policy.

She also confirmed that CIDA, which has been moving away from its well-established, long-term partnerships with trusted and respected NGOs in the field, is moving more and more to partnerships with private sector partners in the mining and agricultural sectors.

Shorter Bev Oda: Let them eat little cakes — ooh, and freshen up my OJ while you’re at it!

h/t

Related:  More from CBC’s The Current on the debate over CIDA partnerships.