Canada’s enviable efficiency

Canada’s enviable efficiency
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Canadian finance minister Jim Flaherty gave a speech in New York this week, and, as is often the case when a Canadian politician speaks before a US audience, apparently spent a fair bit of time bragging about the swift efficiencies of the Canadian parliamentary system.

Traveling Canadians evoke this trope a lot because it’s seen to play into a certain kind of American insecurity over their country’s supposed inability to “solve big problems.” Canada, it is proudly stated, never has a House and Senate stagnant in bitter deadlock, or a president who keeps vetoing things, or a Tea Party style insurrection that turns the party system upside down. We simply have the clean, efficient, Crown prerogative system where a few people at the top pretty much get to do as they please. The guys at the top decided that Canada should do certain things to fix the economy, so all those things were done and the economy was fixed. It was no sweat at all, says Flaherty.

It’s not a partisan talking-point; many years ago I did a cartoon on a very similar speech by the previous Liberal government’s then-ambassador to the United States, Frank McKenna, who also went on about how “dysfunctional” American Congressional governance was compared to Canada’s “efficient” top-down model.

The great irony is that Flaherty’s speech occurred against the backdrop of a significant scandal back in Canada which is basically born from the deficiencies of the very system he was praising.

In a damning report released by the Auditor General of Canada last week, it was revealed that the Harper Administration’s defence department has been engaged in some manner of systematic effort to cover-up the true costs of one of its most major military initiatives — the purchase of 65 American-made F-35 warplanes. While Defence Minister Peter MacKay and others have often gone on the record stating the price to be somewhere in the range of $15 billion, the AG said the real number is more like $25 billion, and suggested the defence ministry has been claiming otherwise despite full knowledge of the actual figure.

As I wrote in the Huffington Post this week, there’s a degree to which this whole episode is somewhat overblown as far as scandals go. No money has yet been spent on the planes, so the gist of the outrage is basically that our politicians have been lying about how much some theoretical pipe-dream might cost — which I’d argue is hardly unprecedented enough to cause the sort of career-ending damage to Harper that his critics are anticipating.

The fact is, when you have, as Canada does, an excessively strong executive branch coupled with an excessively weak, rubber-stamp parliament and an excessively weak, unqualified, hack-filled cabinet of unaccomplished, middling politicians like Peter MacKay, a great deal of decision-making power naturally pools in the executive branch bureaucracy. Bureaucrats can in turn be corrupted by outside influences — in the case of the F-35s, the allegation is the military and American lobbyists helped pushed through what the Auditor General claims was an improperly rushed bidding process — and before you know it, a bad, overpriced decision has been quietly reached.

This is very much the core of Canada’s “efficient” governance model; the maximum consolidation of decision-making power in the hands of non-partisan “professionals” at the expense of elected politicians. That’s why it’s so adorable when Canadian pundits suddenly start expressing outrage that boondoggles like F-35gate “went over the heads of parliament” or “raise questions about ministers’ control of their own departments,” as if the Canadian House of Commons was ever an effective, independent check on the executive branch, or if our cabinet ministers were ever able to effectively reign in their employees (indeed, it wasn’t too long ago that we had a whole other scandal when Minister Bev Oda awkwardly tried to do just that).

If Canada wants a system of government where there are significant checks in place to scrutinize bureaucrats, ministers, spending decisions, executive branch priorities, lobbyists, and who-knew-what-when scandals, then it has to accept some degree of slowdown, gridlock, and inefficiency as well. Preventing runaway government requires things such as powerful legislative committees, a stronger separation between the executive and legislative branches, a more qualified, independent cabinet, and greater public scrutiny of bureaucrats, all of which — as the United States has proven — will invariably generate a lot of delays, fights, and division in the process of working correctly.

But political reform has never been Canada’s strong suit. Instead, the opposition parties will merely ratchet up their outrage and indignation at the current prime minister, as they accuse him of helping undermine values that never existed in a broken system they continue to idolize.


  1. @Kisai

    The American system, nothing gets done that year if the politican is up for re-election that year, so it's like a non-stop political pony show. In Canada, it's what 2 months where nothing gets done?

    Almost seems like it would make more sense to synchronize, all the elections, so they happen all on the same day and thus have less "wasted time" where everyone is subject to political drivel and nothing getting done. I can't see why these people are still allowed to hold office with the low 10% ratings, is it just that Americans hate "everyone except their own representative" or what?

  2. ThePsudo

    The Bush Bailout in 2008 got passed a month before the election. Who says we can't get things done in an election year?

    As for the 10% approval rating for Congress, it's hard enough to find a politician you largely agree with. Put hundreds of them together and it's certain you'll disagree with a lot of their methods and outcomes. It's the same reason why people are cynical about politics (or human nature) generally.

  3. J.J. McCullough

    It seems to me that approval ratings for "Congress" has basically just evolved into "do you like politicians?" It seems quite meaningless considering that re-election rates for individual congressmen remain very high.

  4. Rebochan

    Well, that's because while most people hate "Congress", they don't generally hate their own representatives and senators. In other words, it's way easier to hate on a faceless entity.

  5. @Cristiona

    Yes, but everyone likes their congressman. It's just all those other jerkwads who are ruining things. That's how you can have Congressional approval at 10% yet have huge swaths of the bums reelected.

  6. Jon Bennett

    In what reality do you think American checks and balances prevent that sort of shakedown

  7. David Liao

    Well, look at how costs are publicized and dealt with in the US legislative process. The price tag of programs are documented and discussed several times not just in committee but also in open Congress, in the White House, and of course by the press.

    It's also harder to "corrupt" the process although it obviously happens. Not only do you have to buy influence with legislators but the same must be done for civilian Pentagon officials as well as military officers to guarantee a contract to say nothing of the fact that you must repeat this process constantly.

    The Canadian process seems to rely on influencing far less people with far less transparency.

  8. Guest

    And this is exactly the sort of red tape Canada is better without!

    The more people you have to convince to get the job done the more it costs your business and the less likely that business will want to operate there. In the US, you need an big professional lobbying industry to do it professionally, and obviously they cost a lot of money.

    So why not advertise how it works in places like Canada where the costs are lower?

  9. Dan

    Canada: Corruption, for less!

  10. @widescreenJohn

    People don't seem to understand that it swings both ways — sometimes there are bills that are working their way through Congress that we actually *prefer* to be stonewalled! Even though "nothing gets done" during an election year, sometimes that's not necessarily a bad thing!

  11. @Andy928766

    Peter MacKay's nose seems to get bigger every time you draw him.

  12. Guest

    Where else do you think the F-35s are going to be housed?

  13. David

    What Canadians *really* like to brag about over the US is our healthcare. Take notice that our system of "damned the electorate, full speed ahead" gave us the health care system that is the envy of other places, whereas the current American attempt to get something similar is bogged down in the checks and balances.

    Your cartoon is right, the Canadian system is flawed. But so is the American one.

  14. ThePsudo

    A huge majority of Canadians want such a universal health system. If a majority of Americans do, it's an awfully slim majority. Passing a controversial law easily would be a disgrace, just as inability to pass a non-controversial law would be.

  15. @Cristiona

    But if America had a Canadian-style healthcare system, where would rich Canadians go to get prompt healthcare? :P

  16. A. Apolis

    [Interior, somewhere in Canada. JJ opens the newspaper.]
    HEADLINE: Rick Santorum drops out of Republican race
    JJ: Important news! I had better cartoon th-
    [He pauses. He weighs up the prospect of having to draw Rick Santorum's entirely featureless visage.]
    JJ: …**** it.

  17. J.J. McCullough

    It's very true. And I mean, he's a loser, I've never liked him, I think I've made that clear. I really don't know what else I can say.

  18. GolfballDM

    I like the look of sheer terror on Little Eagle Friend's face in the 2nd frame.

    All it needs are the eyes bugging out of his head. (Complete with cartoon carhorn.)

  19. Hentgen

    The fact that the AG caught this kind of shows that the system works, doesn't it? As you said yourself, the money hasn't been spent — yet.

  20. Trevor Martens

    This is why I love the cartoon JJ, you always say (and draw) things so well. To paraphrase the great Winston Churchill, Democracy is the worst form of government ever used… except for all the others.

  21. J.J. McCullough

    Thanks Trevor!

  22. Andrew

    Very reminiscent of this cartoon from 2004:

    Also, I think this is the first time Little Eagle Friend has ever appeared in a cartoon.

  23. Jill

    More Little Eagle Friend! He's (she's?) adorable!

  24. Kadin

    Eh. I *do* think fusion of powers is a fundamentally good idea (not Canadian or American btw), but I don't think it's necessarily incompatible with checks and balances. You guys managed to introduce the Charter as superior law within the confines of a Westminster system, after all.

  25. JonasB

    I never understood why the cabinet ministers have so little influence in Canada. They're appointed just as in the U.S, right? Why the difference in effectiveness?

  26. ThePsudo

    Congressional approval is a separate vetting of cabinet officials that is not present in the Canadian system, and still would not be even if the same parliament who chooses the Prime Minister had advise and consent authority over his cabinet choices. Because the choices are externally approved, they are more permanent; knowing that means the President has to consider his options more carefully or materially discredit himself.

  27. Pat Gunn

    To what degree would you say that the criticism of the British system implicit in "Yes, Minister" applies to Canada?

  28. J.J. McCullough

    A lot! It's a very good satire of the parliamentary system in general.

  29. ouram

    Still waiting on that new Guide to Canada…

  30. J.J. McCullough

    I can 100% promise it will come this month. It's just being proofread at the moment.

  31. SES

    Poor little beaver friend. :C

  32. Tweeg

    Its funny that you call MacKay a hack when hes leagues above Harper. There wouldn't even be a conservative party today if MacKay hadn't sold out the PCs.

  33. Nanon

    I take your point, but I think the underlying phenomenon here is simpler: most Canadians and most Americans believe in the structure of their respective political systems, for reasons which are more patriotic than logical. I don't know about Canada, but Americans are raised on very positive ideas about how the country was founded and how wise the founding fathers were to set up the system in the way that they did. Most Americans don't spend a lot of time thinking critically about this and how the structure of the government itself may affect the outcomes we get, let alone what alternative setups might be like. So, when I hear you describing the same sort of "isn't our structure so great" sentiment coming from the Canadian side, it sounds all too familiar, even if the system in question is rather different from ours. Idolizing one's system of government may be pretty universal among stable democracies, or at least something our two societies have in common.

  34. Yannick

    In Canada, we spend very little time talking about founding fathers and how our government was set up. The average student probably does not learn about anyone else than John A. McDonald.

  35. Sebastien Cormier

    "But political reform has never been Canada’s strong suit. Instead, the opposition parties will merely ratchet up their outrage and indignation at the current prime minister, as they accuse him of helping undermine values that never existed in a broken system they continue to idolize."