Back when the current government was fresh and new, the word of the day was “deliverology.” Prime minister Justin Trudeau brought over British political advisor Sir Michael Barber to attend three Cabinet retreats in order to help create a culture of focusing on developing priorities and delivering results to Canadians. Those were also the days of “government by Cabinet,” and trusting ministers to run their own portfolios. A Results and Delivery Unit was created within the Privy Council Office and headed by former Ontario deputy minister Matthew Mendelsohn, and a public promise tracker was constantly being updated to show how the government was living up to this deliverology mindset. How things change.
Government by Cabinet fell to the wayside when not every minister proved themselves capable, and Trudeau increasingly relied on a close circle of trusted advisors to approve everything for him, which has led to an increasing number of items being bottlenecked in the approval process, especially as the number of trusted people got smaller when Gerald Butts resigned and so much of that has been left to chief of staff Katie Telford. That promise tracker stopped being updated by in June of 2019, and Mendelsohn left the job early in 2020. And yes, there were things that took the government off-course, whether it was needing to manage the relationship with Donald Trump’s America, and the subsequent renegotiation of NAFTA as part of that, or the issue of the two Michaels being detained in China. And then the pandemic happened, and it too took up a lot of resources and attention of the government, but that shouldn’t have derailed absolutely everything. And yet.
It has not gone unnoticed that this government has a seeming inability to walk and chew gum at the same time, where they can only handle one big file at any time. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that there are so few people in the PMO who are able to approve things because Trudeau’s trusted circle is so small, and there is only capacity to approve things related to one or maybe two major files at a time, and everything else is free to drop off the face of the earth because there appears to be little ability to manage anything else. And I’m not saying that no progress is being made on a number of files, because clearly there has—but it tends to be slow, and never mentioned. Very occasionally a press release will go out, but it mostly gets lost in the shuffle of all of the other events going on, and compounded by a shrinking media footprint that has neither the journalists who can track these things, nor the time to devote to keeping an eye on the things that aren’t the major stories of the day.
Making things even worse are the government’s particular talking points on any of the former priorities that have seen little action. They tend to follow a particular pattern—especially if brought up during Question Period. The minister will stand up, call the issue a priority for the government, proceed to pat themselves on the back for the work they’ve done on the file so far, and end with a slightly insincere remark that they realize that more needs to be done, and that they’re working on it. What makes this all ring hollow, however, is this government’s continued resistance to explaining absolutely anything. A lot of these files are challenging, and yes, hard things are hard, but when being held to account, the government should have an obligation to explain why things are hard, or what the particular challenges are that are causing it to take so much longer to deliver on their promise than hoped. But of course, “when you’re explaining, you’re losing” is the prevailing ethos of this government, so nothing gets explained, nobody can be held to account, and files languish in a mysterious nether-region where they may or may not ever see the light of day again.
While working on another piece this past week, I had occasion to ask Justice Minister David Lametti’s office about the status of a couple of promises that have been made and remain unfulfilled—two of them dating back to the start of this government’s time in office, and one of them made less than a year ago. Unsurprisingly, there has been almost no progress on two of them, and one of them has made some halting movement. The first issue—reforming the Harper-era sex work laws—has seen almost no movement from the government despite this being an early election promise, and the fact that the Commons’ justice committee has done a study calling for changes to the law. Lametti’s office says they’re “looking at the impact of these reforms closely,” and mentioned case law, which is an indication they’re waiting for the courts to once again force their hand. The other issue with no movement was a promise made last summer to consult on banning cosmetic surgery on intersex children (meaning those born with indeterminate genitalia), which should be fairly easy to accomplish, both in terms of consultations and a simple legislative fix. No consultations, no progress. There was some movement on HIV decriminalization, but again, this has been the subject of foot-dragging for years now.
A lot of this shouldn’t be that difficult. There are whole departments that should be able to handle these kinds of things, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. The supposed culture of developing and delivering on priorities seems once again fanciful when it was something that the government was priding itself on in those early years, whereas now we are being inundated with stories about things not working in government, whether it was the passport system, or the backlogs in immigration processing. Yes, they do eventually get fixed with focused time and attention, but should they ever have gotten to that point? Perhaps the government needs to bring Barber back for another Cabinet retreat so that they can get a refresher on how to deliver for Canadians like they’re supposed to be, before the “everything is broken” crowd makes that case to the voters for them.