Fraser Forum

Former chief of staff’s new book is bravely contrarian

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I responded to the stifling heat that descended on Central Canada this week by descending to the relative cool of my basement, tuning in the World Cup Round of 16, and, because soccer isn’t a game that requires undivided attention, reading Ian Brodie’s new book, At the Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits on Political Power.

Brodie was a young professor of political science at the (as it then was) University of Western Ontario when he left to serve first as executive director of the new Conservative Party and then, from August 2005 to July 2008, as chief of staff to Stephen Harper, who was opposition leader, then after February 2006, prime minister.

It’s a very good read. Brodie draws on his experience in the prime minister’s office to try to counter the consensus view among Canadian intellectuals studying politics, namely, that the PMO has become omnipotent.

On the contrary, Brodie argues, the prime minister exercises his power subject to many, many constraints, a number of which are binding more tightly than they used to. For instance, the power of Parliament has increased now that the system for considering private member bills has been regularized and such bills can actually pass, occasionally in ways that complicate the government’s own legislative program. As someone who’s not a political scientist but a great fan of politics (the dutiful game), I would have preferred reading more of Brodie’s war stories, even those that don’t bear on his theme. But this is a memoir in support of an argument so the stories have been marshalled accordingly.

I have to add—and am sorry to add, since for a number of years I worked with McGill-Queen’s Press, the book’s publisher—that it has been very poorly edited. Fortunately, in an era of electronic publication, that should be relatively easy to remedy. (Having made this point I must be extra careful copy editing this post. When I was editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen, one of our lead columnists wrote an impassioned defence of “grammer” [sic]. Though his heart was in the right place the spelling mistake rather undermined him.)

I don’t want to spoil the reading experience by revealing all of Brodie’s choicest nuggets, but I will mention one or two that struck me as especially apt.

On “stakeholders,” a term that affords some interveners in public policy debates a privileged status: “Stakeholders are mostly rent-seekers—representatives from corporations, associations, or other pressure groups who want something from government.” The aphorism would work better without “mostly” but in fairness, some stakeholders probably aren’t just looking for rents. When my kids attended the local public school I became a stakeholder in its efficient operation. I wasn’t seeking unearned benefits, however, just a fair return on my tax dollars with teachers doing a good job delivering a curriculum I approved of.

But Brodie’s point is well taken.

We accord “stakeholders” special respect, when in many cases we should watch our wallets. It’s a real problem at budget time as pre-budget consultations “are overwhelmingly dominated by interest groups who are petitioning for federal spending.”

On the Senate: “The Senate can be either unelected and partisan—unaccountable and weak—or elected and partisan—accountable and strong. Democratic principles cannot tolerate a legislature that is unaccountable and strong.”

On first past the post: “…by exaggerating the size of election victories our electoral system serves the important function of forcing a decisive change of government every so often.”

On partisanship: “University professors, who are not usually known for making good team players or fans [ouch!], struggle to understand how partisanship can make someone into a better citizen. For me, without partisanship, politics becomes the dull disengagement of a faculty meeting.” (Actually, university professors aren’t entirely unacquainted with coalition formation so some faculty meetings do become partisan.)

On Question Period: “What kind of kill-joy wants a Stanley Cup game to be played in silence, with those in attendance only permitted to clap politely at the end of a period? ...The antics of Question Period are the worst way to settle political disputes, except for all the rest.”

On politicians in general: “It is an unfortunate paradox of modern democracy that our elected representatives have to be off the record to be so impressive.” Here Brodie is talking about the Conservative regular caucus meetings where “the discussions and deliberations were serious, vibrant, and frank.” Politicians from every federal party often express similar sentiments: “if only Canadians could see us in caucus!”

Of course, if Canadians really could see party caucus meetings, those meetings would immediately change. They’d quickly be purged of any hint of doubt, uncertainty or self-criticism and would devolve to the ritual performance that dominates so much of our politics.  

I quite enjoyed Brodie’s contrarian defence of institutions and practises—partisanship, first-past-the-post, professional consistent messaging—that, though not exactly indefensible, are these days seldom defended. And he’s a brave man to declare in the current PC, i.e., Perpetually Critical, environment that “Canada’s institutions of responsible, Cabinet, party and parliamentary government” produce the “Madisonian balance… both free and effective government” and now do so, ironically, even better than does the U.S. system that James Madison himself helped design.  

But isn’t there a danger that a system in which “our elected representatives have to be off the record to be… impressive” contains the seeds of its own demise?


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