John Ivison: The rot in Canada’s dysfunctional government is coming from the top
July 8 2022
Re-printed without permission.
At the outset of the pandemic, a small army of unsung public servants was overwhelmed by a Niagara of employment insurance applications, as one-quarter of the Canadian workforce found itself out of work.
Through a combination of ingenuity and dedication, they processed more than two million claims in three weeks and got money into the hands of the people who needed it.
Yet, just two years later, the entire bureaucracy seems afflicted by an inefficiency that has led to a breakdown in the delivery of the most basic government services, from passports to immigration visas; from airport security to facilitating the flow of travellers across Canada’s borders.
Last week, a number of departments received a priority request from the government’s central agency, the Privy Council Office, to urgently review passport, immigration and airport service problems.
One person who received it said there was more than a faint whiff of panic about the all-points bulletin.
What can account for a plight that one senior bureaucrat compared to a body rotting from the inside?
Few in official Ottawa have any doubts that the malady can be traced back to a Liberal government in its third term that no longer has the vitality it once possessed. Over the past seven years, the Liberals have lost, or jettisoned, some of their most seasoned ministers and political staffers.
They have often been replaced by farm-team players with less experience and less rounded skill sets. The upshot is a preoccupation with issues management and the politics of spin.
The main job of a minister these days is to keep his or her face off the front page. In the mind of Victorian intellectual Walter Bagehot, the cabinet is the buckle which fastens the executive to the legislature. But in this government, at this time, ministers report not to Parliament but to the issues management department in the Prime Minister’s Office.
The current controversy at the mass shooting inquiry in Nova Scotia, where the government is accused of pressuring the RCMP to release details of the weapons used to bolster its gun-control agenda, is a paragon of the obsession with spin. Two reputable witnesses have claimed that RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki urged the public release of the guns used in the shootings because of “pressures” from then public safety minister Bill Blair, who had linked those details to the passage of upcoming gun legislation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denies any “undue influence or pressure” was placed on Lucki, just as he denied any pressure was heaped on then justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould in the SNC Lavalin case. The initial response from voters seems to be that they are disinclined to be fooled again.
All governments calibrate the impact of their announcements on their electoral fortunes.
But short-term gains are normally weighed against more remote national interests.
Under this government, even when lip service is paid to longer-term initiatives — from infrastructure to innovation — the results are underwhelming.
There has never before been a Canadian government more captivated by words than by actions.
In the risk-averse world of the Trudeau government, apple carts are not to be upturned, boats are to remain unrocked and pucks are to be well and truly ragged.
Ministers learn quickly that hard choices and trade-offs are best avoided, and that the best way to avoid becoming a scapegoat is to find one.
Take another example: Canada’s China policy, which has been in the works under at least three global affairs ministers and has still not seen the light of day.
Deputy ministers, the senior public servants in each government department, have read the runes and made a conscious decision not to speak truth to power. In the words of one senior bureaucrat, they can see the cracks in the foundations, but they recognize there is no political advantage for the minister in repairing them, so they are left to widen.
I’ve known a lot of deputy ministers over the years — many were conscientious, some were unmotivated, a number were unpleasant. Very few were incompetent.
The service-delivery problems the Liberal government is experiencing has more to do with cynicism within the bureaucracy than bungling.
“The only way for deputy ministers to get the funding they need to fix the foundations is to let political leaders feel the pain of the choices they have made,” said one senior public servant.
While it’s true that deputy ministers may not be tech savvy, the reason the government is 20 years behind the private sector is the lack of political urgency to embrace digital innovation, to the point where the government dropped the role of digital government minister in the last cabinet shuffle.
We are at the stage of the cycle where the partnership between cabinet and the bureaucracy has broken down. Ministers and their deputies are rarely on the same page.
It’s a circumstance that is not unique to this government.
It was one of the prettiest love stories in Ottawa’s history when Justin Trudeau was mobbed by joyous public servants while leaving the Global Affairs headquarters in November 2015. Bureaucrats, who are supposedly politically neutral, celebrated the demise of Stephen Harper, viewed as a malign mix of Big Brother and Napoleon.
But it’s 2022, and the thrill with Trudeau has gone. The prime minister’s approval rating is at its lowest since taking power, with the exception of a brief period in the depths of the SNC scandal.
Liberals know that it is getting late in the day to make deep-rooted changes.
Many politicians, political staffers and public servants can feel the exhaustion, sense the empty-headedness and smell the rot.
They are resigned to the debasement of our politics by a government that is, in H. L. Mencken’s memorable phrase, “a broker in pillage” — a collection of individuals whose only talent is getting and holding office, and whose principal device is “to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get and promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good by looting A to satisfy B.”
The real blame lies with Canadians who voted in sufficient numbers to reward those who manipulate short attention spans and exploit the desire for immediate gratification.
If the current turmoil achieves anything, it will be that citizens realize their federal government needs to be restored from the inside out when it comes to digitizing its services, repairing its tax code, re-adjusting its spending to its income and so on. Smart opposition parties will link the failure to deliver passports to a more holistic overhaul.
It is not true that every nation gets the government it deserves. Even people who voted Liberal should feel cheated. Canada deserves better.