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Harper is controlling, but don’t think Trudeau or Mulcair would be better

"Command and control" is the defining and much decried feature of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's governance, but there is no reason to believe this governing style would change significantly under a New Democratic or Liberal government. Opposition parties denounce Conservative excesses but commit to no concrete changes that would prevent future abuses, restore cabinet government and respect parliamentary democracy.

The basic centralized structure that, carried to extremes that undermine cabinet government and parliamentary democracy, was put in place more than 40 years ago by prime minister Pierre Trudeau and his Privy Council Clerk Michael Pitfield. Its essential feature – Prime Minister's Office and Privy Council Office as hub, ministers and their departments as spokes – has not changed under any government since then. The same government pushed through a radical overhaul of parliamentary rules that effectively programmed the House of Commons to the convenience of the executive cabinet and reduced MPs' traditional "power of the purse" to mere ritual. This rules regime, too, has remained essentially the same.

At its best the system produces government-wide priorities, brings coherence to government policy and programs and imposes collective discipline on ministers (through the PMO) and officials (through PCO). "Due process" is the watchword, meaning adherence to a minutely structured and carefully supervised internal system of checks and balances. There is no room for ministerial or bureaucratic free lancing.

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At its worst, the system makes ciphers of ministers, reducing from substantive to symbolic the autonomy, authority and accountability that they should exercise in our system of responsible government. Their control over their own departments, exercised through senior bureaucrats, is tenuous, compromised by PMO/PCO oversight and direction. Top officials in departments and agencies see their primary reporting relationship as being to PCO and through PCO to the prime minister. They routinely run circles around their ministers who are sometimes out of the loop while key strategic and personnel decisions affecting their portfolios are made by "The Centre".

Strong ministers who may also have a personal political base in the party, country or region work effectively within the centralized system because wise and confident prime ministers understand that dependence between leaders and led is mutual, and officials take their cue from this.

However, the "Harper government's" trademark (literally) innovation has been to superimpose on this existing, centralized system a tightly-run communications regime in which "message control" is the very essence of governance. Under this system, even strong ministers often become passengers on their own departmental ships, their destination and course set by remote control from Message Central at PCO/PMO. Parliament is not even in the picture.

An NDP or Liberal government coming to office in 2015 would inherit this communications infrastructure and the public service personnel who make it work. Unless swiftly and definitively eliminated, this centralized, pervasive network will continue to function as it did during the Harper years. All NDP and most Liberal ministers would be rookies to federal cabinet office and the new PM will be cautious about relaxing central control and direction. The inevitable early ministerial misstep or two, elevated in the media to "crisis" status, will be enough to persuade PMO that maybe the Harper Conservatives had it right all along; and PCO will helpfully provide a redrafted communications blueprint (with an orange NDP or red Liberal cover) that is essentially the same as the Conservative original.

If they are serious about changing the way government and parliament work, the NDP and Liberal parliamentary caucuses, including their leaders, should commit to a series of specific reforms that will be incorporated into their campaign platforms and implemented in the first post-election session of Parliament. A far from exhaustive list of changes should:

  • Take control of government advertising content, including government websites and paid media messages, away from political operatives. Under the Harper government, on a scale previously unheard of, these have become vehicles for party propaganda that should be the job and expense of party headquarters. The message/content of all proposed media advertising by the government should be reviewed and approved for its non-partisan nature by a small team of public policy and communications professionals. This team should also have authority to expose partisan abuses of other information vehicles such as departmental press releases and publications.
  • Reinforce the autonomy of individual MPs and the role of committees by seriously curtailing leaders’ and whips’ control of Parliament. Appoint committee members for a full session of Parliament and require that they countersign any whip’s initiative seeking to replace them; make parliamentary secretaries, whips and others drawing extra salaries ineligible for committee membership; require the attendance of ministers when witnesses are being heard on their bills and at clause-by-clause consideration; require that announcements now made by ministers at news conferences be made first in the House and be subject to brief opposition comment; table proposed regulations at the same time a bill is presented to Parliament; require ministers to table and provide for parliamentary discussion, all joint federal-provincial communiques and agreements.

None of these ideas is new. Some were advanced in 2002 by the Reform Alliance and PC members who briefly formed an Opposition "coalition." Other more fundamental proposals, such as requiring parliamentary consent to prorogation, curtailing the PM's discretion on dissolution of Parliament and establishing a limit of 30 days between a general election and the summoning of Parliament, have been advocated, most recently in the Donner award-winning book Democratizing the Constitution by scholars Mark Jarvis, Lori Turnbull and the late Peter Aucoin.

Up to now, the present opposition parties have offered few specifics and many generalities as to how they would remedy the abuses they condemn in the present government. The NDP and Liberal 2011 election platforms are no help, nor are the statements following annual caucus retreats such as that recently concluded by the Liberals in Prince Edward Island. Reform of parliamentary democracy is crucial and urgent. With the 2015 election in view, the time is now for opposition parties – and perhaps even the governing Conservatives – to nail down a credible platform on this issue.

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Lowell Murray was a Progressive Conservative Senator from 1979 to 2011. He served in the cabinet of prime minister Brian Mulroney.

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