While giving a press conference about the process for the fighter jet replacement options analysis, one of the panellists, University of Ottawa professor Philippe Lagassé, gave reporters a stern reminder – that we live in a democracy, not a technocracy. While it was the point of the options analysis panel to weigh the information and present it to cabinet in a way that was easy to understand and with all of the facts laid out in a way that was cross-comparable, it remained up to the ministers to make the decision. This is the very reason why the panel did not give a preferred option at the end of their work, nor should they have. And yet, that was very much the expectation that reporters and opposition MPs had – that the panel would have made its preferences known, and that they could then use those recommendations as a cudgel with which to beat the government over the head with.
Such is the state of our democratic discourse. No longer does anyone want to do their own jobs in the opposition, but the media apparently no longer expects the government to do its own jobs in a manner by which they can be held to account following the basic precepts of ministerial responsibility in our system of Responsible Government. Because really, why have government make decisions when we could get “outside experts” and civil servants to do the job on their behalf? No worries – they’re independent, they’ll get it right!
This particular line of thinking is being joined by other particular abdications of responsibility on Parliament Hill, as the NDP are now calling on the Auditor General to investigate all MPs’ mailings after they were caught having violated the rules by the Commons Administration and the Commons Clerk. While everyone else is reminding them that the Clerk, Audrey O’Brien, is well respected and non-partisan, the NDP continue to insist that they are the victims of a partisan witch-hunt, casting aspersions on the Speaker in the process. The solution that they keep espousing is that of course the Auditor General can get to the bottom of things. Because there’s apparently nothing that the Auditor General can’t do. Oh, and they also want to set up a further bureaucracy in the Commons Administration to handle all expenses reporting, because MPs can’t be trusted to do it themselves.
As we desire to take ever more responsibility for real decision making away from the Prime Minister, Cabinet and MPs themselves, be it procurement, Governor-in-Council appointments, or the Estimates and Public Accounts, it becomes increasingly apparent that the basic understanding of accountability in our system of government has become all-but forgotten. There is no sense about the ways in which MPs have a job to do in holding the government to account for its decision-making, and in voters’ jobs to hold the MPs to account for doing their jobs of holding government to account. Those mechanisms exist within the system already if we bother to pay attention and use them.
Part of the problem however is that we simply dismiss everything as “partisan” these days, and with civil servants or Officers of Parliament, we can trust them because they are non-partisan. This particular oversimplification neglects the actual relationships between those civil servants and the Crown, or Officers and the Parliament to which they report. It also distorts why we have parties and why partisanship exists, which is to have an exchange of ideas that can be presented to the electorate. Parties can also hold one another to account for those ideas, and debate can happen. Not everything about partisanship is bad.
Things get complicated, however, when the non-partisan advice that politicians use as the crutch of “trustworthiness” clashes with their partisan purposes – think of the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s projections, or the Clerk of the Commons having an issue with the mailings. It suddenly puts those officers into a partisan light by those they’re affecting. There can probably be no better recent example than the way that the NDP in particular were casting Daniel Therrien in a politicized light when he was nominated as the new Privacy Commissioner, ignoring that when he was a civil servant, he was operating on the orders of his political masters. Even though Therrien immediately turned around and became a vocal critic of those same bills that the government he served was putting forward, no apology for politicizing him was offered.
The ultimate issue with this rush to technocracy for the sake of being non-partisan or “trustworthy” is that those same officers become unaccountable. After all, they don’t face confidence votes in the Chamber or the electorate. This is important for the sake of institutional independence, but it also should make us wary about just how much power we begin ceding to them. After all, would we really be comfortable with the powers of the Auditor General pronouncing on policy because he’s “credible,” or an appointments commission tasked with filling all of our Governor-in-Council appointments, even though there is no actual guarantee that they would do a better job than a Prime Minister who can be held to account for his or her choices? If you start to think about it, turning over that monarchical power without the accountability mechanisms of Responsible Government becomes a fraught proposition.
Could our elected officials stand to tone down the hyper-partisanship or outright tribalism of their rhetoric? Absolutely. Do our Officers of Parliament have a role to play, particularly when it comes to technical expertise that an elected official doesn’t have? No question. But should they those technical experts make political decisions in an attempt to somehow de-politicize our political process? No way. We give the power to make those decisions to ministers and elected officials precisely because we can hold them to account for them. It’s time that we remember this fact and start exercising our due diligence with regards to the work of accountability. We can’t simply outsource it to more unaccountable “experts.”
Other articles by Dale Smith
Time for a rethink on leadership contests
A looming Senate crisis is history repeating
Chong’s Reform Act is a step but not a panacea
NDP satellite offices and expanding the definition of “parliamentary” work
Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale