Harper Entrenches Trudeau’s Legacy

When he was a younger man, Fidel Castro was known for his work ethic. He read everything, talked to everyone, and laboured endlessly. Sometimes he would work for days without sleeping. He was inexhaustible.

But it made no difference. Not even Castro could keep his radically centralized government from developing sclerosis. The Cuban government, like all Communist governments, became a massive and bloated creature, barely able to stand up, let alone get anything done.

Now, before I continue, I want to say for the benefit of the easily offended that I am not comparing Stephen Harper to Fidel Castro in any moral or substantive sense. My concern is the centralization of power and its consequences.

“Canada is very much at the leading edge of the centralization of power,” notes University of Moncton political scientist Donald Savoie. Real power – the ability to get things done – is heavily concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and its bureaucratic assistant, the Privy Council Office (PCO). It’s been leached out of everything else. Ministries and departments. The governing party’s caucus. Even the cabinet.

The prime minister calls the shots. Everyone else takes orders.

That much has been well-recognized at least since 1999, when Savoie published Governing from the Centre. It caused a sensation in the political class and democratic reform became a rallying cry for dissident Liberals clustered around Paul Martin and conservatives sick of the imperial rule of Jean Chrétien.

But a critical aspect of Savoie’s argument – that centralization causes sclerosis – got much less attention than his complaints about excessive power in the PMO. It’s worth revisiting that today because power is even more centralized in Stephen Harper’s PMO than it was in Jean Chrétien’s.

Over the years, as the power concentrated in the PMO and PCO grew, the number of people employed in those offices grew along with it. It had to. With growing power came growing responsibility. Take the budget. Previously, it was mostly drafted in the ministry of finance. Now it’s mostly the work of “the centre.” That takes lots of bodies.

But there can only be one prime minister. And since the prime minister’s word is the ultimate source of power – the driving force that gets things done – centralization inevitably creates a bottleneck.

By all accounts, Stephen Harper works very hard. But that doesn’t matter. The demands on a prime minister’s time are mammoth. He could work with speed and efficiency around the clock, every day, all week, forever, and he would still be a bottleneck.

This has two consequences, Savoie says.

One, a prime minister who wants to get things done must focus. “Any prime minister who says he has more than three priorities he’s going to pursue is going to fail.” Jean Chrétien knew that. Paul Martin didn’t. Savoie thinks Harper has learned this lesson well.

But the government is huge. Its responsibilities are vast. There are hundreds of concerns that must be addressed at any one time. If only a few can be the prime minister’s priorities, how does a hyper-centralized government handle all the rest?

Badly, says Savoie. “Everything else is put through a process of committees, of interdepartmental meetings, and if it’s not driven by the prime minister it has no life. It just goes on and on and on.” As one public servant told Savoie, his job was to “keep turning a crank that is not attached to anything.”

This is the legacy of Pierre Trudeau.

Prior to the Trudeau era, the PMO and PCO were small. That was deliberate. Gordon Robertson, the legendary clerk of the Privy Council, warned that growth at the centre would make it difficult for ministries, under the leadership of powerful deputy ministers, to develop and implement innovative policies.

Trudeau thought he knew better. “Trudeau was not a student of politics and government. He never understood Parliament, truly,” Savoie says.

Trudeau took authority away from the deputy ministers and brought it into the centre. In theory, this meant cabinet’s power would grow. In practice, “it bypassed cabinet and went straight into the prime minister’s office.”

Every opposition leader since then has complained that power is too centralized. Every prime minister since then has centralized it even further.

Savoie’s passionate condemnation of centralization didn’t slow it down. In an odd way, it may even have contributed to it.

“An adviser to a prime minister asked me if I’d sign a copy of Governing from the Centre,” Savoie says. “I leafed through it and I noticed that he had read it, he had underlined a few things. And I said, ‘Now you’re going to do things differently?’ He said, ‘No, no, no. We use it as a manual.’ ”

Savoie wouldn’t tell me who the adviser was but he confirmed that the prime minister he worked for is Conservative. “And you can now assume which one I’m talking about,” he added with a laugh.

As of Friday, that prime minister will have served longer in office than John Diefenbaker.

We don’t know what Stephen Harper’s legacy will be, of course. But making the government more dysfunctional by extending and entrenching the legacy of Pierre Trudeau will be part of it.