Harper’s Accountability Act, ten years on: Flumian and Salgo

This lengthy commentary is well worth reading and is should provoke considerable and deeper discussion both within and outside government beyond the online comments.

Would be interesting to hear from some of the former public servants who worked on the Act for their take:

Still, our own view, bluntly, is that both the Act and the audit culture it sustains are fundamentally wrongheaded, and have contributed to a normative culture that is a roadblock to modernization. Far from fostering genuinely efficient stewardship of public resources, this culture over-manages minor risks in government, ignores far larger ones, and stifles appropriate risk-taking and innovation. If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is serious about its focus on delivering better outcomes for Canadians, it needs to shift to a system of accountability that is itself more focused on outcomes and less on micro constraints and the avoidance of blame.

To this day, the FedAA — which was actually part of a broader program of initiatives described as the “Federal Accountability Action Plan” — stands, we would argue, as the definitive legislative monument to risk-averse, blame-avoiding institutional rigidity in the government of Canada.

So, as the Act approaches its tenth anniversary, we may well ask: Accountability for what? Has government become more accountable as a result of the act? More to the point, has the FedAA and similarly-spirited initiatives contributed to better societal outcomes? Does it position the Canadian government to evolve nimbly to meet the challenges of governing in the digital age?

…A methodologically rigorous assessment of the impact of the FedAA — like one of the need for it — remains to be conducted. To date, much reported criticism draws on a broadly negative assessment by the public service textured by compelling personal anecdotes. A public service thumbs-down is neither definitive nor something that should be casually dismissed. Indeed, a systematic survey of public service experience would make a good starting point for a robust analysis. In the meantime, however, our principal basis for assessing the FedAA remains a parsing of what the legislation did and did not do.

Before assessing the individual elements of the legislation, let’s consider its overall thrust. Did this act about accountability have anything to say about being accountable for better outcomes? For working collaboratively on horizontal files? Did it give deputy ministers the responsibility and flexibility to improve the bottom line? Indeed, did it include any inducements to work pro-actively for improvements?

On the contrary, almost every provision was a further proscription, a more refined behavioural restraint, an intensification of scrutiny to smoke out unknown misdemeanours. And more to the point, the requirements of this regime could be satisfied in a purely negative way — that is, not by actually delivering something good, but by keeping your head down and avoiding blame.

As befits accountability legislation, the FedAA strengthened internal audit requirements in government departments and designated deputy heads as “accounting officers” for their organizations, meaning that they had to account in some way to Parliament for their managerial custodianship. Now, internal auditing is itself a laudable practice — one that that should actually be welcomed by a CEO as a tool for keeping tabs on the organization. However, the actual impact of internal audits on government departments is an area that merits closer study; the decision to conduct an audit by external committees may at least initially have reinforced a tendency to see the function as something to be managed rather than embraced.

As for the accounting officer function, this was evidently structured to minimize the risk of public servants becoming politically accountable to Parliament (itself a defensible goal). Partly for this reason, the responsibility is cast heavily in terms of demonstrating compliance with Treasury Board rules. But again, that is really not an outcome-oriented focus for deputy ministerial accountability, and it is highly unlikely that disregard for Treasury Board requirements was a significant problem in the deputy community. There is also the possibility that it reinforced a siloed focus on one’s own department.

…We need to replace what the FedAA has given us — more detailed rules and more costly and powerful people to oversee them; a chilling effect on public service and engagement with the outside world; and redoubled focus on departmental siloes and accountability conceived as compliance — with a system oversight and accountability that hones in on real risks across the system and that encourages collaboration, innovation and a focus on outcomes. Are public servants accountable for ticking boxes, or for helping the government of the day improve the lives of Canadians in meaningful ways?

If there is a real risk to the effective governance in Canada today, it is the risk that government will not meet these challenges, diminish in relevance, and be beaten at its own game by external providers of goods and services with no mandate to look out for the public interest.

Source: Harper’s Accountability Act, ten years on

Liberals will find key to undoing Harper’s agenda in his infamous ‘firewall’ letter | Ottawa Citizen

A good in-depth and must read piece by Andrew Potter on how the ‘firewall’ letter was implemented from Ottawa, and the tactics behind implementation of the ideology:

Data: It wasn’t privacy, as Tony Clement said, or freedom, as Max Bernier argued, that was the real rationale for killing the mandatory long-form census. It was to throw a whole lot of noise into the demographic signal that the census had been giving for decades. That is also why Statistics Canada as a whole was gutted over the course of the Harper years. Without accurate data, social planners are flying blind.

Expertise: No government in living memory has been as hostile to experts and to evidence as the Harper government. But as Laval economist Stephen Gordon recently argued, it wasn’t all forms of expertise and evidence that gave the Tories hives – plenty of their economic initiatives were rooted in the best available evidence. What the Tories were allergic to was expertise that steered the evidence in directions they didn’t want to go – “committing sociology,” in Harper’s wonderful turn of phrase. That is why scientists were muzzled, policy shops were shuttered and bureaucrats were ignored.

Money: Here is the meat in the sandwich. When it comes to social planning, the ultimate source of Ottawa’s power is the spending power. And this is where Harper had his greatest success. By the end of his tenure as prime minister, Ottawa’s spending, as a share of GDP, had fallen to levels not seen since the middle of the 20th century. And the spending that does remain is overwhelmingly devoted to either just keeping the lights on or takes the form of transfers to the provinces and individuals.

Harper’s policy genius here was the two-point cut in the GST, which currently costs the federal treasury about $12 billion a year. Harper’s political genius was the creation of an all-party and pan-Canadian consensus around the virtues of a balanced budget at that historically low-level of federal spending.

No data, no experts and no money. Starve the beast, but make it blind and deaf at the same time. This is Harper’s “Ottawa Firewall” in a nutshell.

‘Flat-tire federalism’

As long as Harper was in power, this firewall against centralized social planning was bound to be highly effective. The question is, what remains of this agenda with a Liberal majority in power in Ottawa?

The long-form mandatory census is back, just under the wire. Another missed census in 2016 would have gummed up the data for generations, but as it stands, it looks like the 2011 asterisk will remain just that.

The scientists have already been unmuzzled. The public servants have been asked for their advice. The policy shops are staffing up and stocking the shelves and will be open for business soon.

But what about the money? This is where things get tricky for the Liberals. Their commitment to running three relatively small deficits to build infrastructure and kick-start growth caught everyone in the chattering classes off guard, and turned out to be a political winner.

But the promise was to return to balance by the last year of their mandate. That is, they accepted the basic premise of balanced budgets at more or less current levels of federal revenues (their tax plan calls for additional revenues of just $3 billion). This isn’t nearly enough, and there is not enough economic good weather in the offing for Ottawa to grow its way to good times.

An Ottawa with lots of data and lots of policy ambitions but no money is going to be pretty ineffectual.  At some point, the Liberals are going to have to tackle the revenue problem. Without money, without the fiscal capacity to get things done, all the data and expertise and policy advice is just squiggles on a page and vibrations of air molecules.

A federal government that is nicer, less controlling, more transparent but still broke is not one that has much capacity to bother the provinces with socialist schemes. And if that’s where things remain, then Harper’s long-term victory will be cemented, regardless of who is in power.

Source: Liberals will find key to undoing Harper’s agenda in his infamous ‘firewall’ letter | Ottawa Citizen

The Conservative Legacy on Multiculturalism: More Cohesion, Less Inclusion 

This post updates an earlier article on how multiculturalism changed under Minister Kenney and the Harper government, taking into account their use of identity politics before and during the recent election Canada Today: Less Hotel, More Live-in Condo). This complements my ‘transition advice’ post, Multiculturalism: Getting the Balance Right – Reflections for a new government.

How has government language and programming changed under the Conservative government, and what is the legacy of Jason Kenney, the Minister for Multiculturalism? And what has been the impact of the niqab controversy and Conservative wedge politics on that legacy?

The overall context is that Canada’s diversity continues to increase, given increased non-European immigration. Diversity varies regionally and municipally, with B.C. and Ontario the most diverse, the Atlantic provinces and cities the least.

Along with this increased diversity, Canadian multiculturalism has continued to evolve since the policy was announced in 1971. The policy and subsequent act had two main aspects: cultural  recognition and equity, both designed to further integration.

The following table captures the evolution from “celebrating differences”to the Harper government’s emphasis on social cohesion. To respond to perceived faith and culture clashes, greater emphasis was placed on shared values, and the original metaphor of the cultural mosaic shifted to “conforming,”a contrast to the “harmony/jazz”of a more fluid approach to integration and accommodation.

CRRF Power of Words Webinar - Short.001

But what were the main policy and program changes made by Minister Kenney since 2007?

Early on, he articulated his vision of multiculturalism, linked closely to citizenship, as follows:

But having criss-crossed this great country; having attended hundreds of events and talked to thousands of new Canadians, I am certain of this: we all want a multiculturalism that builds bridges, not walls, between communities.

We want a Canada where we can celebrate our different cultural traditions, but not at the expense of sharing common Canadian traditions.

We want a country where freedom of conscience is deeply respected, but where we also share basic political values, like a belief in human dignity, equality of opportunity, and the rule of law.

We don’t want a Canada that is a hotel, where people come and go with no abiding connection to our past or to one another, where citizenship means only access to a convenient passport. We want a Canada where we are citizens loyal first and finally to this country and her historically grounded values.

The key to building such a Canada, to maintaining our model of unity-in-diversity, is the successful integration of newcomers.

And that should be the focus of today’s multiculturalism.

Emphasis accordingly shifted from cross-cultural understanding and inclusion to integration and social cohesion. Employment equity within government was replaced by making government more responsive to the needs of Canada’s diverse population. Combating racism and discrimination and encouraging civic participation was replaced by engaging in international discussions, largely focussed on anti-Semitism. Faith communities and related issues became explicitly part of multiculturalism.

While Kenney “flirted”with replacing multiculturalism with “pluralism,” he soon recognized the long-standing “brand value”of multiculturalism and its place in the Charter. No changes were made to the Multiculturalism Act.

Government funding support through grants and contributions was reoriented to these new objectives in the new Inter-Action program. The mix of organizations supported changed accordingly. A new “events stream”was created to support “food and folklore”events that encouraged integration between communities (as well as building political support).

Explicit linkages with citizenship were introduced. The Discover Canada citizenship guide emphasized common Canadian values, a more Conservative historical narrative, and integration rather than accommodation. Symbols that highlight Canadian historical connections to Britain, including the Crown, were highlighted.

The Government delivered on historical recognition for immigration and war-time internment for a number of communities (Chinese, Jewish, Italian, Sikh, and Ukrainian Canadians). These historical events were incorporated into Discover Canada.

Black History and Asian Heritage Months continued, with more emphasis on Canadian history and military. The Paul Yuzyk Award (“the father of multiculturalism”)was created to recognize contributions to Canadian multiculturalism and integration of newcomers (as well as appropriating multiculturalism for the Conservatives).

The Canadian Race Relations Foundation broadened its programming to include inter-faith initiatives and a greater emphasis on common values. The Government invested $30 million into the Global Centre for Pluralism of the Aga Khan based in Ottawa.

Existing federal and provincial multiculturalism networks were maintained, albeit weakened given reduced resources.

Multiculturalism was shifted from Canadian Heritage to Citizenship and Immigration (CIC) in 2008 and folded into CIC’s organizational structure. Resources were reallocated to other functions in CIC. Given CIC’s “centre of gravity”of immigration and decreased emphasis, the program declined in activity and importance.

Kenney remained Minister for Multiculturalism following the Cabinet shuffle of 2013 given the importance of the “fourth sister”in Canadian politics.

At the same time, political outreach to ethnic communities increased. Kenney — “curry in a hurry” — was on the road three weekends out of four, with up to 20 events per weekend. The new “events stream” furthered his outreach. These efforts, according to the Canada Election Survey and related polling, played off particularly well in the 2011 election with older, more well-established communities such as Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Jewish, Chinese and older South Asian communities.

However, this extensive outreach failed to stem the tide in the 2015 election, where the Liberals won 30 of the 33 ridings with majority visible minority population (mainly in the Greater Toronto Area and BC’s Lower mainland). The Conservatives only won two of these seats, losing decisively in terms of the popular vote for all these ridings: 32 percent compared to 52 percent for the Liberals).

Changes to multiculturalism took place in parallel with a greater focus on economic immigration, major refugee reform to reduce the number of refugee claimants, and the 2014 changes to the Citizenship Act making citizenship “harder to get and easier to lose.”The latter makes a clear distinction between born and naturalized Canadians, as the latter (including those born dual nationals) are subject to revocation in cases of terror or treason.

So have these changes made a difference to the multicultural fabric of Canada?

First, all parties continue to actively court ethnic communities. The Conservatives, to their credit, had taken this to a new level, arguing that new Canadians intrinsically shared conservative values like hard work and family. They maintained current levels of immigration (about 250,000 per year) throughout the 2008 recession. Unlike Europe or the U.S., we have no major political party opposed to large-scale immigration. Multiculturalism generally has not been a wedge issue. While there are significant differences, Canadian debate focusses more on specific policies rather than existential debates, Quebec excepted.

However, this approach shifted dramatically in the lead up to the 2015 election and during the campaign itself as the Conservative government increasing practiced wedge politics, singling out Canadian Muslims on issues as diverse as the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, spousal abuse, ‘honour’ crimes and ‘snitch lines.’ Kenney, who had been so vocal in his condemnation in the Parti québécois’s proposed Quebec Values Charter, was complicit in this change. The end result undermined Canada’s social fabric and ultimately backfired as an electoral strategy. The Conservative Party will need to reflect upon the possible long-term effect in its efforts to gain and maintain new Canadian support.

Secondly, while all political parties have closer relations with some communities, the Conservative government was more willing to “pick sides”than others. The shift in Canadian Mid-East policy towards unequivocal support for the Netanyahu government was the most notable example.

Thirdly, the Government emphasized symbolic measures. Citizenship judges are diverse but will largely be limited to a ceremonial role under the new Citizenship Act. But, only three out of some 200 federal judicial appointments were non-white. Visible minority ministers were in junior positions (multiculturalism, sport, seniors). Senate appointments, however, were more representative.

Fourthly, broadening racism and discrimination to relations within and among communities is welcome, given that our largest cities are 25-50 percent visible minorities. However, the government’s almost exclusive focus on anti-Semitism has neglected challenges faced by visible minorities, including Canadian Muslims. While the Conservative government cultivated strong relations with Muslim minority communities such as the Ahmadiyyas and Ismailis, it made little effort to develop relations with ‘mainstream’ Sunni and Shia Muslim communities.

Fifthly, these changes need to be seen in the context of a shift towards economic immigrants and tighter citizenship rules that will likely, over time, slowly drive down the current naturalization rate of 85 percent. This change will affect some communities more than others.

Overall, under Kenney, the Canadian model of multiculturalism returned to its roots by emphasizing integration, recognizing the diverse cultural identities of Canadians so that all Canadians, whatever their origins, could feel part of Canada. However, Canadian Muslims were singled out, wedge politics practiced and equity considerations were downplayed.

As part of citizenship, Kenney implemented a more explicit approach to shared identity and values. “Harmony/jazz”ad hoc improvisation was replaced by “conforming,” to clearer expectations, correcting an imbalance that implied Canada was a clean slate or as a hotel without any sense of what was acceptable and what was not.

Had the Conservative government not played ‘wedge politics’ with Canadian Muslims, it would have ensured a reasonable legacy for the incoming government to build upon. But having done so, it has tarnished its legacy, and perhaps harmed its future political prospects.

Will Justin Trudeau keep fighting Stephen Harper’s court battles?

Likely that a number of these kinds of cases will be dropped, presumably to the relief of Justice Canada lawyers (given that at least part of the Harper government’s motivation appeared to be more scoring of political points than enforcing the law):

Bahareh Esfand couldn’t vote for Justin Trudeau, but she sees the prime minister-designate’s victory reflected in her own Federal Court battle

For the past year, the Coquitlam, B.C., woman has locked horns with a Conservative government bent on winning the right to remove her permanent resident status.

It’s a complicated story: Esfand came to Canada from Iran in 2006 with her political refugee husband, but the minister of citizenship and immigration wants to strip her of refugee status for returning to see her ailing mother.

Regardless, the battle is almost pointless, because even if the government won, it’s unlikely they could deport a hard-working, non-criminal mother of a Canadian-born child and wife of a newly minted Canadian citizen.

As if to put a fine point on all of that, Federal Court Judge George Locke sided with Esfand this week in a scathing decision that suggests the outgoing government was “more concerned with removing refugee status than granting it.”

‘They’ve got a lot of decisions to make’

Esfand claims Stephen Harper’s government threw her life off balance in a bid to score an ideological point.

In that, she wouldn’t be alone. Canada’s courts are packed with claimants alleging their rights were violated by an agenda that purported to be tough on bogus refugees and tough on crime.

But her case also raises a question. What next? Even before Locke handed down his decision on Esfand, Ottawa announced plans to appeal if they lost.

But will Trudeau want to continue fighting Harper’s battles?

“They’ve got a lot of decisions to make,” said Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

“They’re going to have to take a good, hard look at the whole suite of laws that have been passed by the current government and the legal challenges that are out there and figure out what to do.”

Broadly speaking, the cases in front of appeal or Federal Court judges involve either broad Charter of Rights challenges to legislation or specific cases where the application of policy allegedly undermines the intent of a law.

Issues range from mandatory minimum sentences, victim surcharges, the Fair Elections Actrefugee health care and Bill C-51 to the controversial niqab issue — just for a start.

Source: Will Justin Trudeau keep fighting Stephen Harper’s court battles? – British Columbia – CBC News

Politics is the only free market that matters to Harper: McLaughlin

Cutting piece by David McLaughlin on the “shopping for votes” phenomenon and the Government’s approach to maximizing its electoral advantages:

Voters are consumers, not citizens. We are ‘shopped for votes’ by parties as our attachment to the political process waxes and wanes. Market segmentation slices and dices the electorate into micro-chunks of likely and accessible voters resulting in targeted voters being bombarded with direct appeals for support or money. Once captured in a party’s database, the virtuous cycle is repeated as retaining a committed supporter is ‘job one’ of any party.

The Conservative Party’s goal to get their hands on news video clips of their opponents for political advertising through new copyright rules fits with this dynamic. As the country is splintered into hundreds of mini-campaigns targeting specific voter demographics, using this material to craft electoral and fundraising messaging is simply the new normal.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been resolute in using incumbency to advance the political dominance of the party he leads and turn the Conservative Party of Canada into the default governing party. He has double-downed year-after-year on a strategy founded first on a core base vote glued by values and, then second, on a relentless string of election rule changes to give his party advantage over his opponents.

Free market capitalism is sold as beneficial for consumers. Healthy competition leads to more choice, lower prices, better service, and innovation.

But free market democracy is no guarantor of equivalent benefits for voters. After all, the end game of ideas and values in a democracy versus products and services in a marketplace are radically different from each other.

Conservatives instinctively favor free markets. It is striking that for all its populist interventionism and regulation as part of its consumer agenda, the most visible manifestation of free market philosophy in action is taking place in the political marketplace.

Politics is the only free market that matters to Harper – The Globe and Mail.

Why we should listen to Elizabeth May – Paul Wells

Good commentary by Paul Wells on the shrinking role of government and the reduced capacity it implies:

In 2009, after the opposition forced him to run very large deficits as the price of Conservative political survival, Stephen Harper made a simple, crucial decision: He would eliminate the deficit over time, not by cutting transfers to the provinces for social programs, but by cutting direct spending on the things the government of Canada does. The government of Canada operates embassies, labs, libraries, lighthouses, benefits for veterans and Arctic research outposts. Or rather, it used to. These days, each day, it does a little less of all those things.

The sum of these cuts is a smaller role for the federal government in the life of the nation. Each of the steps toward that destination is trivial, easy to argue both ways (who needs fancy embassies?) and impossible to reverse (if a future government decides, “We need fancy embassies,” it can never get back the prime real estate this government is now selling).

In his long-delayed appearance before the cameras (sorry), Trudeau depicted the Harper government as devoid of ideas. “Its primary interest is the well-being of the Conservative Party of Canada and not of Canadians.” May, on the other hand, is sure the government has ideas; that it is pursuing them even when the rest of us are grandly bored with details; and that it is changing the country. She’s right.

This is not to say that period trimming of government is not needed – it is – but the stealth approach (i.e., the PBO should not have to submit ATIP requests for information on cuts), and limited public debate are worrisome.

Why we should listen to Elizabeth May – Inkless Wells, Opinion, Paul Wells – Macleans.ca.