Friday, October 08, 2010

Donald Savoie, Power: Where Is It?

It is a rare day when my news websites, Twitter feeds and newspapers do not contain at least some reference to how the current Conservative administration is bypassing established bureaucratic process, subverting access to information legislation or centralizing power in the office of the Prime Minister. It is thus extremely timely to see the publication of political scientist Donald Savoie's Power: Where Is It? I picked up Savoie's book at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the urging of my Dalhousie colleague Shirley Tillotson, who had purchased it and had been voraciously devouring it. Surprisingly for a book published by an academic press, Savoie's book is extremely current, assessing the lay of the political land in Canadian politics as it stood by late-2009, and assessing trends that continue to dominate the headlines.

While I imagine that most politicos are currently devouring Lawrence Martin's Harperland (a book I hope to get to soon), I rather suspect that Savoie's book deserves a place of greater priority for students of Ottawa's power relations. Drawing on a host of personal interviews, political science literature and years spent analyzing Canadian politics, he paints a chilling portrait of how the exercise of power in Canada has shifted over the past 40-odd years. Among the more important elements of his book, he examines how globalization, private-public partnerships, a thickening of the state and the adoption of private sector management techniques have made it more difficult to determine where decision-making power and, more importantly, responsibility lies in the modern Canadian state.

Few elements of modern governance escape Savoie's attention. He calls our attention to the extensive array of "watchdog" institutions which are supposed to make government more accountable - the courts, the media, officers of parliament, access to information laws. Unsurprisingly, he also observes the overall failure of these provisions to actually produce greater transparency and accountability. Indeed, perversely, he observes that the host of new reporting requirements on government have led to an ever-more-bloated bureaucracy, which is so weighted down with answering information requests (or finding ways to avoid them) that it has become easier for Prime Ministers to justify a policy process which bypasses the bureaucracy, placing soft power and influence in the hands of think tanks, the private sector and key individuals who are not always subject to these accountability provisions. Indeed, and this is one of Savoie's more interesting observations, it may be that these accountability provisions are completely unworkable, and perhaps detrimental to the policy process. In an era of "gotcha" journalism and ATIP fishing expeditions, senior bureaucrats have become more wary of "speaking truth to power" or questioning government decisions. This has the impact of weakening the policy function of the bureaucracy. As a historian, it is extremely troubling to read of how many bureaucrats are now explicitly instructed not to commit any key decision-making material to print or email, relying instead exclusively on personal conversations. There will be no paper trail for us to follow in the future.

As a student of the history of public policy, I was particularly interested in Savoie's observation that, beginning in the 1980s, a succession of Anglo-American democracies began to strip away that policy-making function from the state, relegating the bureaucracy to a management function, and away from being a source of creative ideas. From this perspective, the "path dependency" or "new institutional" approaches to studying policy thus have a diminished relevance after the 1980s, as key institutions (like major government ministries such as Foreign Affairs and Industry), have lost their clout and autonomy. He does observe that a bright individual working in the civil service may still be able to influence policy, but more likely as a result of their personal networks and contacts. Governance, he claims, has been reduced to the mantra of "what matters is what works", which has subverted key institutional players in favour of high-profile, well-connected individuals.

This trend towards personalism is the key conclusion of Savoie's work. Although he argues that many government institutions have lost power due to international treaties, privatization and globalization, what power remains has become increasingly personalized and concentrated in key individuals and their "courts". Nowhere is this more true than in the office of the Prime Minister - although this trend long predates Stephen Harper. Part of the responsibility for this trend lies with the occupants of that office themselves, who have been keen to exert increasing control over Cabinet and the bureaucracy. But this trend is also reinforced by an era of 24-hour media and electronic media engaging in "gotcha" reporting with an almost total emphasis on the party leadership. This in turn has led to the hollowing out of any real power for political parties, government ministries and the Cabinet. The situation is worsened in the current climate of minority government where we see perpetual campaigning by our political parties, unhampered by any financial controls on their advertizing outside of election itself.

Indeed, Savoie is quite scathing when it comes to policy role played by the media in the modern era. He argues that the media reports on what is "interesting", not what is important, and that as a result, their impact on the substance of policy substance is limited because most journalists are not interested in detailed policy analysis.

Although repetitive at times, Savoie has produced a quite readable synthesis of the key trends that are shaping the exercise of federal power in Canada. While he does occasionally delve into international examples and the private sector, there isn't as much material here on the provincial or municipal levels of government - not a flaw in his work, but a key issue for other scholars to examine. Ultimately, Savoie is posing us with a challenge. He concludes with the sentence "But what matters above all else is the individual, not institutions, not organizations, and not formal policy-making and decision-making processes." The question is whether we, as Canadians are willing to accept this new model of how power is exercised, and if not, what are we going to do about it?

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Saturday, October 02, 2010

Peter Russell and the Governor General

According to a recent report on the CBC, the now-retired Governor General Michaëlle Jean extracted promises of a rapid return to Parliament and a budget that would pass before allowing the prorogation of Parliament in 2008. The story is particularly interesting because it gives the perspective of leading constitutional scholar Peter Russell, who was one of the experts consulted by the GG during the crisis. I'm supportive of Russell's interpretation of the action as not setting a binding precedent that all future Governors General must follow, particularly as I felt at the time that Jean had made the wrong decision.

The most interesting part of the story is the fact that Russell (whose book Constitutional Odyssey has long been a staple of my political history courses) is organizing a meeting of international experts for next February on the future of the GG's powers, and that the new Governor General, David Johnson, is supporting the meeting. It will be extremely interesting to find out what these experts conclude.

Of course, my own sentiments on the matter tend to line up more with U of T professor emeritus Michael Bliss, who opined in a letter to the editor of the Globe this week (not that I can find it in the Globe's revamped website) that Canada really needs to do away with its ties to the monarchy. But that's an entirely different debate, for another day.

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