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.