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Friday, August 26, 2005
Who do you know in the PMO?

Allow me some shameless self-promotion: Pitt, Menzies and Beaverbrook stole some of my thunder by posting so quickly after me, but I really thought I was on to something with "By Jingo" (see the post below those of the aforementioned authors). I really enjoyed writing it because it permitted me to combine my three hobbies (international trade, domestic politics and hardcore pornography). It isn't all that easy to bring them together, so it's always really satisfying when I can.

The post below is the response I would write to the National Post if I thought they'd print it.

L. Ian MacDonald’s op-ed in today’s national post (“Martin's PMO is thin on Quebec talent”) blames the G-G-D fiasco on the Martin PMO’s lack of Quebec experts. If only it were so simple. Remember the days when you-know-who in the PMO was declaring that federal politics would no longer be determined by whom you know in the PMO?

The G-G-D would not have happened were the choice vetted by a Parliamentary or Senate committee. First, Martin would have done his homework. Second, if he hadn’t, Mme Jean’s appointment would have been torn apart. In that event, Martin would have had two choices: withdraw the nomination or back Jean with the full weight of his office. Then we would either get a new choice with more legitimacy, or we’d get to see Mr. Martin’s leadership in action.

Instead, we got “trust me, I’m a politician. It isn’t a terribly convincing line at the best of times, and now is not the best of times for Ottawa. The excesses of the Chrétien-era have taken their toll on the government’s credibility, and the Liberals maintain their hold onto power by cynically exploiting (and thereby further diminishing) the weaknesses of our federal institutions.

The rationale behind not allowing the elected representatives to publicly interview the candidates for G-G or positions with real (potential) influence such as Senators or Justices is the fear of partisan politics. The PM says that the media spotlight would whither his picks, and discourage good people from taking the positions. One of the underlying assumptions here is that the PM can be trusted to consistently pick the best people. In other words, trust him, he’s a politician.

The other assumption is more widespread and more insidious. It is the belief that politics hinders the government’s ability to work for the people. But there is another name for partisan politics: politics. Politics is the business of our political system. The idea that it should be held at arms length from the business of governing is foolish.

For reasons that are rather obvious the fear of partisan politics is common in official Ottawa. But it is also perilous for Canada. To work, concentrated power in the hands of the Prime Ministers requires that there be very few and very tiny differences of opinion on core issues facing Canadians. Only in this case can competing views of what the business of government actually is can be efficiently reconciled exclusively by the talent in the PMO. Out here in the real world, many see the government as representing only those narrow interests that keep it in power. People with ideas that fall outside of the orthodoxy will not consider the government legitimate. Why is separatism over 30% in the west and a solid 40%+ in Quebec? Why is voter apathy so high? Why is Paul Martin routinely had his head handed to him by provincial premiers (who received more votes than Paul Martin’s party in every province except Ontario)? There’s your answer.

To have legitimacy, our political leaders need to consult, to battle and prevail or fail with and against the politicians entrusted by the people to represent them. That they consistently prove themselves on the battlefield of ideas is what distinguishes revered leaders from despised politicians. But our PM is only required to frighten a regionally concentrated and very parochial portion the Canadian population into voting for his party. Want to know why Canada has a dearth of leadership at the federal level? There’s your answer.

To have good governance, our policy makers must be kept accountable. Our support for the concentration of power in the hands of the PMO implicitly assumes that our government can be trusted to rule wisely and therefore they shouldn’t be inhibited. Unfortunately, Philosopher Kings are in very short supply and mere mortals tend to blunder. The magnitude of their errors is directly proportional to the amount of power they can wield. One does not get Mme Jean, or the gun registry in a system with effective checks and balances. For those who support the registry as effective gun control, allow me to suggest that any program that goes 100 000% over budget is an abject failure. Want to know why the federal government has been so prone of late to boondoggles? There’s your answer.

Finally, power without accountability tends to corrupt. Want to know why we’ve Ad-scam? Do I need to say it?

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