Last week the NDP's Pat Martin sassily suggested the government's decision to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board was analogous to popular lore that a beaver, when under attack, will bite off an important part of its anatomy and offer this up to its attacker.
Whatever the merits of Mr. Martin's analogy for that decision, it is perhaps at least equally applicable to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's seemingly uncharacteristic decision to transfer responsibility for awarding the $33-billion dollars in shipbuilding contracts to four senior public service executives. Pundits, academics and other observers have widely applauded the decision to give the task to the deputy ministers, suggesting it neutered Mr. Harper's ability to overtly control the contracts and to secure his preferred political outcome. Indeed, many have suggested that this should be the model for the future of awarding large-scale government tenders.
Before Canada declares the end of politicized spending decisions and celebrates the victory of neutral public service expertise in public policy, the process merits more careful consideration.
Much of the enthusiastic commentary about the shipbuilding approach has assumed that because public servants had the power to decide which shipyards got the contracts, partisan politics played no role. This glosses over the relationship between the prime minister and deputy ministers. Although deputies technically work under the direction of cabinet ministers, the prime minister potentially has tremendous control over their work. The PM appoints and can dismiss them at will. As the late, eminent Canadian scholar Peter Aucoin frequently noted, this arrangement confers significant power on the prime minister. Prof. Aucoin saw this lack of independence as contributing directly to the Liberal sponsorship scandal. His work led to the Gomery commission's recommendation to revamp the deputy minister appointment and termination process to ensure greater independence – a recommendation that has not been acted upon by the Harper government.
While there is no evidence the Prime Minister pulled strings with deputy ministers in this case, general experience suggests deputies are not necessarily politically independent.
Despite this, some of the most vociferous critics of contemporary prime ministerial power, such as Professor Donald Savoie of the University of Moncton, have accepted the independence of the shipbuilding process at face value. Writing in The Globe and Mail he raised questions of accountability, suggesting that if things go wrong with the contracts in the future, the public won't know whom to hold accountable. This misrepresents the basic requirements of ministerial responsibility. In nearly all areas of government administration, ministers, including the prime minister, delegate their authority to public servants. In our system of government, it has always been the case that ministers remain politically accountable for the decisions they delegate.
We should also remember that delegating this kind of decision to public servants still leaves tremendous scope for the government to set the terms of the decision. Politicians still determined much of the criteria that public servants used to pick "winners" and "losers".
To be clear, the elected government had every right to make these decisions in whatever manner it saw fit, subject to relevant laws and regulations. And there is no reason to expect a lack of partisanship in government decision-making.
Finally, one can argue that the Harper government delegated this decision to bureaucrats because there were no tactical political gains to be made from favouring one shipyard over another. A political decision would arguably cost the government as much support in regions of the losing bidders as it gained from the winning regions. The true test of the government's commitment to removing politics from spending decisions will come when they forfeit a real opportunity to gain political advantage.
Nevertheless, for those who are concerned about increased intrusion of partisan politics into areas of government activity that should really be apolitical – including the work of government scientists and the long-form census – the shipbuilding process may signal a new respect for public service independence. At the very least, even if the Prime Minister did exercise influence over the shipbuilding decision behind the scenes, the process suggests the government wants to be seen to be avoiding patronage, taking public service advice and making spending decisions according to objective criteria.
In the praise that followed the announcement of the shipbuilding contract process, few commentators stopped to ask important questions about how the process actually unfolded, how independent the public servants were really able to be, and the extent to which this case can serve as a model. Given the lack of transparency in this process, more information and critical analysis is required before we can embrace this model as the way forward.
Cosmo Howard is an associate professor political science and public administration at the University of Victoria