Too much power in the PMO? Charest, panel weigh in

Posted on Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

By McGill Reporter Staff

In the last 30 or 40 years, there has been a significant concentration of political power in the Prime Minister’s Office and in the offices of Canada’s provincial premiers, former Quebec Premier Jean Charest told a forum on dealing with the problem on Monday at the Faculty of Law’s Moot Court.

Before he was shouted down by anti-pipeline protesters, Charest, who is part of a committee organized by Canada’s Public Policy Forum to make recommendations on improving Canada’s governance, said the concentration of power in executive offices is not unique to Canada, but is occurring in other countries which employ the British Parliamentary system.

And it actually gives a Canadian prime minister “more power to get things done than an American president,” he said, noting the recent economic downturn showed the advantageous side of that, given the rapidity with which Canadian governments were able to respond to the crisis compared with their American counterparts.

The PPF produced a report last fall, called Time for a Reboot, which outlined nine comparatively simple recommendations for improving governance, reducing the concentration power in executive offices and making our political institutions better suited to the digital age. Others on the committee that produced the report include former Clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch, former Alberta Finance Minister Jim Dinning, Monique Leroux, Chair and CEO of the Desjardins Group and former McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum.

Charest said the panel came up with recommendations that would allow better and more democratic governance without resorting to the need for changes to the Canadian Constitution. That’s why, he said, there was no mention of Senate reform, while there was a recommendation that the Chairs of House of Commons committees be voted on by the House as a whole and not be simply appointments made by the prime minister, for example.

He said the tighter grip successive prime ministers have kept on the levers of power has been in part the result of the constant, 24-hour news cycle and the need for governments to respond to the media on all subjects all the time. That won’t change, he said, before protesters among the 100 or so people in attendance stood up, unfurled banners and began chanting in order to drown him out.

The event was recessed for about 20 minutes and Charest did not return. Instead, the scheduled panel discussion, moderated by Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Christopher Manfredi, began with a discussion of the report’s recommendations. Other panelists included McGill professors Antonia Maioni (political science); Daniel Weinstock (law); and Christopher Ragan (economics).

Panelists mostly praised the report for the clear and sensible nature of its recommendations, but raised questions about how much of an effect it will have.

“People who have the power to make the changes often have the least incentive to do so,” Weinstock said, adding it’s hard to expect those in government to willingly give up the powers they possess.

Ragan praised the report and its authors for tackling “a crucial issue,” but noted it is unfortunate that people are unlikely to read it. “It’s pretty much ‘inside baseball,’ ” he said. “How do you generate public support for our wonk-ish solutions? Will any of these problems be naturally addressed by this government?”

Ragan, who has advised both Conservative and Liberal governments on economic policy, said it would be best if governments would “design policy as if they were in opposition.”

Maioni said she has observed a strong appetite for the report’s recommendations on the part of the younger political class in Ottawa and said one of the report’s greatest strengths is to convey the message that “it doesn’t have to be like this.”

But getting people outside the Ottawa bubble to engage on such issues will be a significant challenge, made all the more important, she suggested, by the fact that Charest had it wrong when he pinned the blame on the media’s appetite for news 24-7.

“I don’t think that’s a really strong reason why we have allowed this to happen,” she said. “It runs much deeper than that. And unless we figure that out, we’re not going to be able to do something about it.”



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