Last in a series
My days as a National Post "newsstand grazer" are forthwith going to be reduced by 50%. Colby Cosh's grace period is over, and his regular column will be Mondays-only as of next week.
The unfortunate (really!) consequence of this is that today will likely be my last exposure to Sheila Copps' weekly meanderings. And judging by today ($ubscriber Only, natch), I may well be missing out.
The topic today is ministerial responsibility. I will spare you the fair use of half the column, and summarize a central premise: for every instance of political interference we hear about periodically, there are also policies, procedures, regulations, and conventions which act to prevent or prohibit ministerial management of the ongoing operations of Cabinet departments. And for ministers responsible for Crown corporations, that goes double. Says she:
"...notwithstanding the public (read media) disbelief to the contrary, it is perfectly logical that a minister would have set the framework for the sponsorship program and then only been involved when an internal audit pointed out serious problems in the system."Without approving of the example she has selected (or the use of the weird double-negative), I wish to concede her this point. Fortunately, even if you don't, I think her conclusion has merit. Says she:
"...the result of various public inquiries, studies, commissions and hearings leans toward concluding that the problem is too much political involvement, not too little. Hence, the Gomery inquiry will probably lead to a whole series of recommendations to further isolate politicians from the business of government."
[paragraph I won't subject you to, as it is a defense of the merits of the sponsorship program, and has nothing to do with the central argument put forth by her piece]
"Far from removing politicians from the decisions around communication, we should understand that politicians are actually the only ones who are accountable to the people. You may not like their decisions from time to time. Heaven forbid, you may sometimes even throw the bums out. But remember, democracy may be messy but it is a darn sight better than the alternative."
Inelegant and cliche-ridden, sure. (Who am I to talk!) But she makes an important, rarely articulated, and correct point:
You can't have it both ways. You cannot ask our politicians to make our institutions more relevant, responsive, streamlined, whatever, and then insist that all these institutions be "at arms length" from meddling politicians.
And not only can you not have it both ways, but one way is right and one is wrong. The right way is to insist that our politicians be responsible for the government machine, and give them whatever leeway they need to exercise (and accept) this responsibility.
There is really no such thing as an independent, arms-length government body. At minimum, these bodies exist at the pleasure of Parliament, and are funded by the budgets approved by Parliament. And since the only voice we as citizens have in government is through the representatives we elect, why would we encourage, or even allow, the existence of barriers between our representatives and the operations of government? It amounts to muzzling ourselves.
Thinking it through, what exactly would be the problem if the CRTC was an advisory body, and final decisions were made by the Heritage Minister, or by Parliament? As I see it, it would make exactly one difference: if the citizenry didn't like the job that was being done, they could vote the person or people responsible out of office.
I certainly understand the sentiments behind the attempt to ensure that government operations are fundamentally non-political or non-partisan. But the flip side of this is, if our elected representatives are not accountable for government operations:
- Who is?
- Why them?
- And what are we to do if they're doing a lousy job?