Public institutions need 'reboot' to rebalance power, says report

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10/29/2015

MARK KENNEDY, OTTAWA CITIZEN

Published on: October 28, 2015 

Canada’s key public institutions — the Prime Minister’s Office, cabinet, Parliament and the public service — need a “reboot” to restore the trust of Canadians, says a report released Wednesday.

The report by the Public Policy Forum is authored by a panel that includes former Quebec premier Jean Charest, former Alberta treasurer Jim Dinning, and former federal Privy Council clerk Kevin Lynch.

The report warns that as the PMO and political staffers have become more powerful in Ottawa, cabinet ministers and members of Parliament have lost influence and the valuable role of public servants as advisers has been diminished.

“The problem is that our public institutions are no longer playing the roles for which they were designed, nor with the authority to be effective,” warns the report by the independent think tank.

“An extraordinary centralization of power with
 our prime minister, provincial premiers and 
their political advisers has become a defining characteristic of government today, frustrating elected representatives and career public servants.

“There is a troubling antipathy toward the public service, raising the risk of long-term damage to the institution.”

The report notes that if cabinet, parliamentary committees and the public service were able to “function as intended,” they could better respond to “critical longer-term challenges facing Canada.”

Among those challenges: the need to diversify and expand international trade, co-ordinate environmental and energy strategies, address “unsustainable” health-care costs compounded by an aging population, and build a more innovative economy.

“Like those of other democratic nations, Canada’s public institutions have failed in some important ways to keep pace with global changes,” says the report.

“Good governance is not an end in itself, but a means towards achieving a robust democracy for the benefit
 of all citizens. This is important to Canadians both for reasons of transparency and ensuring trust in public institutions.

“Given the above-mentioned shortcomings, our political system clearly needs a reboot if it is to 
fulfil citizens’ expectations and serve the purposes of advancing our provinces and our country — and Canada’s place in the world.”

The panel has issued nine proposals for reform. Among their ideas:

– MPs should elect the chairs of Commons committees.

– There should be fewer of those committees and they should be better funded.

– Ministers and deputy ministers should regularly appear before the committees.

– Ministers should appoint their own chiefs of staff and they should be “accountable” for their political staff.

– The prime minister should make a clear statement about the “conventions” underpinning the public service and its role with respect to policy advice.

– The roles and responsibilities of the public service should be enshrined in legislation.

– The role of the “political staff” that work for the prime minister and cabinet ministers should be clarified and measures should be put in place to provide “appropriate accountability and transparency,” including a code of conduct.

The report comes just days before prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau forms a majority Liberal government. Trudeau has promised a range of democratic reforms to restore credibility to Parliament, make government more open, and treat public servants as partners instead of adversaries.

Dinning, chair of the panel that wrote the report, said the timing of the report’s release this week, as Trudeau prepares to take office, is “just good luck” — adding that he hopes the prime minister acts on all the recommendations.

He said millions of Canadians went to the polls last week and elected MPs they hope will have clout.

“It isn’t just about the Prime Minister’s Office or the political staff. I want to know that my parliamentarian has a say in the affairs of the nation,” Dinning said in an interview Wednesday.

In addition to Dinning, Charest and Lynch, others on the panel were Monique Leroux, CEO of the Desjardin Group, and Heather Munroe-Blum, chair of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

Among the problems cited by the report:

The PMO

The office now functions as the “real” cabinet on Parliament Hill, as its staff “develops and screens government policy, decides on appointments, devises communication strategies and writes speeches for the prime minister, ministers and others.

“Its reach and influence extends into almost every corner of government.”

The cabinet

The dominance of the PMO has come largely at the expense of the cabinet.

“The notion of cabinet government is now questionable. Executive governance has evolved to the point where cabinet ministers no longer play the vital role they once did.”

Parliamentary committees

The committees of MPs are weakened with “constant pressure” from party whips and House leaders to follow “narrow partisan agendas.”

“Working productively across party lines is becoming the rare exception.”

The public service

It plays a “core role” in our system.

“It is non-partisan, professional and permanent, serving governments of any political party with equal loyalty and effectiveness. Its appointments are merit-based.

 

“However, the public service in Canada is today in danger of becoming an ‘administrative service’ whose sole
 task would be to execute the orders of politicians and their aides without informed policy advice, question or discussion.”

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in The Ottawa Citizen .