Restoring public trust in Canadian governance is within reach

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10/30/2015

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

Friday, Oct. 30, 2015 11:34AM EDT

Jean Charest, Jim Dinning, Monique Leroux, Kevin Lynch and Heather Munroe-Blum are members of the Public Policy Forum’s panel.

Canada is a proud democracy with a strong system of governance and public institutions. While we have much to be proud of, our system isn’t perfect. Our public sector governance process is falling short of what Canadians expect and want. There is significant room for improvement. The sustained practice of good governance in our parliamentary system is vital to our democratic health.

And Canada is not alone. The pillars of the Westminster democratic system have been weakened in parliamentary systems from Australia and New Zealand to the United Kingdom and Canada. In each jurisdiction we have witnessed increasing – indeed, extraordinary – centralization of authority and a shift to permanent campaigning and short-termism.

In Canada, the office of the prime minister and the premiers’ offices now exert tremendous power over the legislative branch of government and their public services. Our public institutions – Parliament, cabinet ministers and the public service – no longer play the roles they were designed to play. Canadians’ trust in them is eroding.

The reasons for this decline are not a mystery. Short-termism, driven by a fast-paced, technology-driven, round-the-clock-news-cycle world and an increasingly engaged citizenry, has taken root in the agendas of our elected representatives. Too often, issues management trumps longer-term strategies and policy-making.

The excessive centralization of power has a far-reaching impact. It has reduced the role and effectiveness of cabinet ministers, with the traditional role of cabinet increasingly devolved to political advisers. Similarly, the independence and effectiveness of parliamentary committees have been weakened, undermining one of Parliament’s most effective tools for scrutinizing the executive branch and holding it to account. The public service has been supplanted by a “political service” of unelected and unaccountable appointees who, while an essential part of our system, are too often relied upon for ready-made political solutions to policy issues.

Some degree of centralization and concentration is a natural evolution in our Westminster-style system of government. And, given the revolution in communications and media, some of it is inevitable and even justifiable. But when it comes at the expense of democratic debate, it undermines our ability to address long-term challenges in an open, transparent and substantive way. Critical issues – unsustainable health-care costs, expanding our international trade, coordinating environmental and energy strategies, to name just three – get pushed to the policy back-burner.

Recognizing this, the Public Policy Forum established an independent panel to examine how best to restore balance and respect to our political system and ensure that power and authority are effectively shared among the institutions of our democracy. We asked critical questions: How do we restore the role of Parliament and parliamentary committees? How do we enable ministers to fulfill their responsibilities as ministers? How can we refurbish the public service’s capacity to offer astute, independent, research-based policy advice? And how can we build more accountability into a much-expanded political service?

We drew one critical conclusion from our work: Renewal is within our reach. Drawing on international experiences and examining how our system is lagging, we developed nine recommendations. Outlined in Time for a Reboot: Nine ways to Restore Trust in Canada’s Public Institutions, the recommendations are non-partisan, practical and easily implemented without any constitutional changes. They are focused on parliamentary committees, cabinet, the public service and the political service. By taking steps to restore each element to its intended role, we can restore the balance that has served Westminster-style democracy so well.

The report recommends strengthening parliamentary committees by giving them greater independence from party discipline, reducing the number of committees, allowing them to determine their own meeting schedules and providing them with the resources needed to fulfill their mandates; empowering cabinet by allowing ministers to be ministers and making them more accountable for their portfolios; restoring the public service to its role by enshrining in legislation the principles, roles and accountabilities of a non-partisan, professional public service; and building similar accountability principles into the political service, including a code of conduct and formal oversight mechanisms, as well as governance training for political staff.

These measures can strengthen our public institutions and better allow them to play the roles they were created to play. They will pay dividends in the form of a more productive, accountable, balanced and transparent political system in Canada. With a new government in Ottawa, now is the time to exercise the foresight and the will required to make these changes.

Good governance benefits all Canadians and advances Canada on the world stage. The time to act is now. Renewal is within our reach.