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In a recent column, Lawrence Martin argues that the right way to check the growing power of the PMO is to fill its top positions with members of parliament. I disagree. The real issue with the PMO is not over elected vs. unelected officials, but the abysmal lack of transparency in the system. These are very different things.

For clarity, I am not opposed to calling on MPs to play new roles, possibly including senior ones in the PMO. But when Martin says this would “give regular MPs more input and more power,” or that it is a way of “increasing accountability and visibility of the PMO operation,” he is mistaken.

True, caucus members would no longer have to answer to unelected officials, but this is no guarantee of more input and power. More likely, a few MPs would wind up better off, but only because they would now work for the PMO. Meanwhile, it would be business as usual for everyone else in the commons.

We’ve seen this scenario with committee chairs. Although all are MPs, that provided very little protection against the long arm of the PMO. Over the last decade, most have become little more than puppets of the office, ready to deliver talking points on command.

But it’s a mistake to blame this on the boys in short pants. They are the symptom, not the cause. The deeper problem is that too much power is now concentrated at the centre, rather than shared with parliament. My worry is that the boys in short pants could be quickly replaced by MPs with big sticks.

Martin’s model carries such risks. It might well marginalize the commons rather than save it. Having elected officials as PMO staffers could lend centralization the legitimacy it needs to keep marching along.

By the same token, it could make the PMO an even stronger rival to cabinet, as people begin to wonder who is more important, the prime minister’s (elected) chief of staff or, say, the finance minister.

The real problem with Martin’s approach is that it conflates two different aspects of accountability. On one hand, he is right that standing for election makes an official answerable to the people—which is certainly part of what we mean by accountability.

But transparency is something else again. Transparency allows us to see how an official is carrying out his/her duties. In effect, it allows us to judge the legitimacy and appropriateness of their actions given the role they have been assigned.

Thus if a minister breaks the rules or oversteps his/her mandate, transparency lets us learn about it and form an opinion. By contrast, the fact that the person is elected—and therefore accountable at the ballot box—is no guarantee that the events will ever come to light.

I believe the most pressing accountability problems in our political system today stem from a lack of transparency, not because more people in key positions should be elected. (The Senate is a glaring exception.)

Far too much public business happens in a black box. Where this is the case, simply replacing an unelected person with an elected one will not fix the problem.

That increasingly we talk as though it will is worrying. I suspect this view has been imported from the United States, where many more positions are elected ones and this is seen as an essential part of democracy.

It is not, and I see no real evidence that election has made these offices more effective, fair or legitimate than their Canadian counterparts.

Again, I am not opposing such elections. My point is just that there is nothing wrong with having an elected official—such as the prime minister—appoint such people to act on his/her behalf in the exercise of his/her duty.

This is already the case with judges, officers of parliament, senior public servants, ombudspersons and a host of other positions. (There is certainly a question about how the appointment process proceeds, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Indeed, a decision to elect such people would raise a whole new set of issues. Many of these positions require very special skills. Demanding that candidates stand for office would dramatically reduce the talent pool, thereby reducing the chances of filling the positions with qualified people.

In particular, there is a serious question whether it would be wise to limit key jobs in the PMO, such as the chief of staff or director of communications, to members of the government caucus. These positions require exceptional skills and experience.

Nevertheless, for whatever reasons, Canadians seem increasingly convinced that elections are the right solution to most accountability issues. Martin himself says it “would serve as a way of increasing accountability and visibility of the PMO operation.”

Really? How would appointing MPs to serve, say, as chief of staff or director of communications, increase the accountability of the PMO’s operations?

For that, we would need more information about how and why decisions are made and implemented. And that has little to do with being elected. It is about how things are reported. Surely we have learned by now that elected people are at least as likely to hide such information from the public as appointed officials.

Having said this let me now conclude by noting that when it comes to accountability, elected officials clearly do have a status that is very different from all the rest of us. Perhaps no one is better positioned to call the PMO to account than parliament—and especially the government backbenchers in parliament.

Of course, that assumes they are willing to speak truth to power.

 

Dr. Don Lenihan is Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. He is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Don’s latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement is an introduction to the field of public engagement, a blueprint for change, and a sustained argument for the need to rethink the public policy process. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@ppforum.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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