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National Opinion Centre

Gerald Butts has resigned and Ottawa is awash with speculation about the next chapter in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

My take on it is simple — I have absolutely no idea.

And in the interests of full disclosure, I worked with Gerald at Queen’s Park and found him to be a capable and honourable fellow.

What I do know, however, is that as the dust settles on this most recent story there are going to be calls for the end of the all-powerful PMO. You saw it even before the Butts resignation.  Critics are dragging out Justin Trudeau’s promise in the 2015 campaign to end the concentration of power among unelected advisors in the PMO, as well as his claim at the swearing-in of his first team of ministers that “government by cabinet is back.”

This is obviously a promise that hasn’t been kept. Whether you believe inappropriate pressure was placed on the former attorney general or not, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that unelected PMO staffers are deeply involved in every major government file — and call many of the shots.

Why is anyone surprised? Why should we have believed Trudeau’s promise? And when Andrew Scheer or Jagmeet Singh make the same promise in the next election campaign (as they certainly will), why should we believe them?

I don’t say this because I doubt the sincerity of every opposition politician who decries the concentration of power within a prime minister or premier’s office.  I say this because the nature of governing in Canada today automatically leads to that concentration of power.

Start with the 24-hour news cycle.   How does a government get its message out as well as manage its daily deluge of crises without clear direction from the top?

It’s not just communications. Federal and provincial governments in Canada operate in silos while public policy challenges tend to cut across government.  Central co-ordination is needed to ensure that all parts work together, priorities are addressed, and the needed trade-offs occur.

And what of politics?  We live in a leader-focused political culture. It requires strong central control to establish and maintain the type of brand that is going to help a prime minister or premier stay in power and get their government re-elected.

There are also the aspects of politics that nobody talks about. Not all elected members are the best and the brightest.  Not every cabinet minister is strong and capable, and there are many who require significant handholding from the centre to do their jobs and stay out of trouble.

Government is organized chaos.  As both an ex-PMO staffer and a former provincial cabinet minister, I witnessed many times when unelected advisors were the only thing keeping an embattled government afloat.

The system is far from perfect.  Those same unelected advisors often start believing in their own brilliance and reject ideas that are not their own.  They can become unhelpful gatekeepers, keeping the prime minister or premier in a bubble. Forgetting that their names were never on the ballot, they can undermine the will of elected members.

Do we need to reform the system?  Absolutely!

But simply promising change when in opposition, or calling from the sidelines for the end of government by “kids in short pants,” is not going to achieve anything. Instead, change is going to require some heavy lifting.

It might begin with a detailed analysis of decision-making in government.  Are there more collaborative structures? Would voters be happy with a slower decision-making process if they knew that it more fully engaged our elected officials? Would the media, and through them voters, accept a much more undisciplined message from a government, particularly one trying to reach a decision on a policy matter? Could we change the nature of the support provided by the public service to ministers?

These are important questions but hardly the stuff of catchy campaign slogans or op-eds written by outraged columnists.  Until we start to address them, however, promises to curb the power of the prime minister or a premier’s office are going to continue to be broken.

John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the Director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Martin Luther University College, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at jmilloy@luther.wlu.ca or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.

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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