Why should Canadians be concerned about per- petual government by one party? There are at least five interrelated reasons: the tendency of any unchallenged authority (1) to abuse its power; (2) to develop a culture of mediocrity leading to decline; (3) to sink into a paralysis or bankruptcy of policy; (4) to rule by clique; and as a consequence of all of the above, (5) to lead citizens to conclude that there is little point in their engagement in the political process.
The best-known encapsulation of this syndrome is British statesman Lord Acton’s 1887 aphorism: power tends to corrupt. He added that absolute power corrupts absolute- ly. Canada is not quite at this terminal stage, although the sponsorship scandals and related rot in Ottawa would sug- gest we are getting there at a speed that may prove danger- ous to the political health of Paul Martin.
British Prime Minister William Pitt the elder made the same observation a century earlier: unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it. This corrup- tion of the mind has been well described as the arrogance of power, and Liberal ministers are not immune from this near-universal human failing. Louis St-Laurent’s minister of trade and commerce, C.D. Howe, once actually taunted the opposition about their powerlessness to prevent the Liberal government from doing whatever it wanted. ”œWho’s to stop us?” he asked " not rhetorically " in 1951. And in the pipeline debate of 1956, he famously asked, ”œWhat’s a mil- lion?” Enough to bring down a government, replied John Diefenbaker in the 1957 campaign that finally ended 22 consecutive years of Liberal rule.
The chief danger, and frequently the reality, of such omnipotence is abuse of office. Wherever politicians and their bureaucrats have a monopoly or have exclusive rights, wherever they have arbitrary authority coupled with the conviction that no one can stop them, there is bound to be abuse of this unrestricted power, in matters high and low. The courts, which are the theoretical bulwark against such abuses, are of little help to any but the most rich and pow- erful among us, in any situation where the government is willing to further abuse our taxes by spending unlimited money and time to defend its initial abuse relentlessly, an advantage that no private citizen can overcome. Even such apparently powerful figures as Brian Mulroney and Conrad Black per- sonally felt the vengeful sting of the Chrétien government as it dealt with its perceived enemies.
But it is the myriad of less visible abuses of government authority that happen every day in Canada, and against which the victims have no effective recourse whatsoever, that must concern every Canadian who believes in freedom, due process and the rule of law.
When the authority of an office is abused so as to benefit the office-holder directly or indirectly, the abuse becomes outright corruption. Political scientist Donald Savoie, in his book Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics, has demon- strated that the Canadian prime minister is the most powerful elected figure in any democracy, as he enjoys complete authority over both the executive and the legislative branches of the government, and personally appoints and dismisses both cabinet ministers and senior public servants " even judges. Jean Chrétien clearly abused his office in personally pressuring François Beaudoin, then head of the Business Development Bank of Canada, to approve a loan to businesses with which Chrétien had been associated, in contravention of the bank’s guidelines and recommen- dations. He and other ministers rou- tinely diverted huge sums of taxpayers’ money for their own parti- san political advantage, even though they may not personally have gained a direct financial benefit. They pre- ferred to follow the advice of the Tammany Hall political boss in New York, who once said that with all the grand opportunities around for someone with political pull, only a fool would actually steal.
An example of the Liberals’ abuse of office and public funds for partisan advantage was the $700 million Atlantic Investment Partnership announced less than four months before writs were issued for the 2000 election. According to the Web site of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) at the time, this new program was unveiled at a news con- ference in Halifax on June 29, 2000, by Prime Minister Chrétien, along with the four regional ministers for Atlantic Canada. (Why did Atlantic Canada need four political ministers?) The Web site said this program was a ”œfive-year, $700-million initiative designed to build new partnerships that would increase the capacity of Atlantic Canadians to compete in an increas- ingly global, knowledge-based econo- my. Through the Atlantic Investment Partnership, the Government of Canada would make major invest- ments in the areas of innovation, com- munity economic development, trade and investment, and entrepreneurship and business skills development.” That should pretty well have covered the Atlantic waterfront.
The $700 million that Canadian taxpayers contributed to the Atlantic Investment Partnership worked out to $603 for every voter in the region. But it was only the tip of the iceberg of Liberal largesse to the Atlantic region. Net transfers to the Atlantic provinces from the rest of Canada (via Ottawa) equal about 30 percent of their GDP; yet unemploy- ment levels there are still the highest in the country.
A related example of abuse of office and public funds for partisan gain was the entire jobs grants program at Human Resources Development Canada, where up to $1 billion in grants was mismanaged. The auditor gen- eral reported that the perform- ance of HRDC was ”œdisturbing,” involving ”œbreaches of authori- ty, improper payments, limited monitoring and approvals that had not followed established procedures.” This is bureau- cratese for saying that many grant recipients were selected on the basis of politically moti- vated recommendations from Liberal MPs and party officials.
Public office may also be abused for the purpose of perse- cuting one’s political enemies. The most notorious example of the use of this tactic by the Chrétien government was the politically motivated RCMP investigation into unsubstantiated rumours of kickbacks to former prime minister Brian Mulroney in relation to the purchase by Air Canada of 34 Airbus A320 jets from Airbus Industrie. It took a major libel action and a pro- fessional public relations campaign by Mulroney, at a personal cost of over $2 million, to clear his name in a 1997 set- tlement. Although the Liberal govern- ment was forced to allow the RCMP to pay Mulroney’s expenses, it continued the RCMP investigation for another five years. And the entire investigation now appears to have been based on nothing more than unsubstantiated allegations by Mulroney’s sworn enemy, muckraking journalist Stevie Cameron, who has acknowledged that she was unwittingly the RCMP’s ”œcon- fidential informant” in the case.
Finally, it is also abuse of office, and a major waste of taxpayers’ money, to proceed with reckless political undertakings made in opposition, no matter how misguided they may turn out to be in government. Two egre- gious examples of such politically motivated and expensive decisions by the Chrétien Liberals illustrate this point. The first was the cancellation in 1993 of the previous government’s contract to buy new EH-101 helicop- ters to replace some 30 Sea King shipborne helicopters, then 37 years old. The second was the similar cancella- tion of a contract with a private-sector company, Don Matthews’ Paxport Inc., which later joined its rival, Charles Bronfman’s Terminal 3 group, to form the Pearson Development Corporation to manage passenger ter- minals at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. The first breach of contract has cost Canadian taxpayers at least $600 million, and the second, far more. In both cases, 10 years have been lost with no sign of replacement helicopters, and no completion of the redeveloped Pearson Airport, all in the name of keeping Chrétien’s foolish campaign promises in 1993.
The most recent, and without doubt the most serious, example of corrupt abuse of office by the Chrétien Liberals is of course the current spon- sorship scandal, in which tax money was thrown around with complete abandon by key Liberal ministers and insiders under the guise of raising Ottawa’s profile in Quebec. Sheila Fraser, Canada’s outstanding auditor general " who thankfully, unlike Chrétien’s tame ethics commissioner Howard Wilson, reports to Parliament, not to the government " could not contain her ”œoutrage” at the complete disregard for policies, guidelines and good practice in the funnelling of hundreds of millions of dollars through advertising agencies to Liberal-connected recipients. Senior public servants ”œbroke every rule in the book,” Ms. Fraser fumed, and Prime Minister Paul Martin, who was finance minister at the time, has acknowledged that this could not have happened without political direction. She now believes that some $100 million of taxpayers’ money, which has in effect been stolen, will never be recovered.
A second danger of unbroken one-party government is mediocrity, leading to decline in comparison to countries where true political competition pro- duces better government. In the absence of any serious competition, the Liberals have had no incentive to excellence or to innovation. There has been no sense of urgency, and little imagination. Drift and decline set in, as the perquisites of power exercised their seduction, as ministers and MPs devoted their attentions and energies to the ceaseless jockeying to replace their leader or to ensure their positions under his successor, and as boredom, inattention and laziness take their toll on a team too long in place.
Three devastating examples of Canada’s decline under the current Liberal government are the drop in our relative purchasing power, standard of living and overall competitiveness vis- à-vis the United States; the deteriora- tion of our health care system; and the downgrading of our armed forces.
According to economist Tom Courchene in his book, A State of Minds: Toward a Human Capital Future for Canadians, the real pur- chasing power of adult Canadians, relative to adult Americans, reached a peak of near 84 percent in the late 1970s. By 1998, purchasing power had tumbled to a low of almost 70 percent. Courchene cites a 2000 Industry Canada study which says that one third of US states have a standard of living more than 25 per- cent higher than the Canadian aver- age, while five Canadian provinces (Manitoba and the Atlantic provinces) rank below Mississippi, the state with the lowest standard of living. The wealthiest states, such as Delaware or Connecticut, have liv- ing standards 50 percent above the Canadian average.
Courchene concludes that we ”œrun the serious risk of becoming an ”˜incubator’ economy for the US and other foreign multinationals and, in the process, we will erode our ability to grow big business within Canada.”
The state of Canada’s shattered and bureaucratically strangled health care system is too well known to require description. But it is nonetheless sobering to compare our situation with other countries. While the OECD ranked Canada fifth among its 29 member coun- tries in national health expenditure, we fell into the bottom third of countries for availability of medical technology such as MRI and CT scanners. This is an indi- cation of the inefficient distribution of resources that is inevitable in a mono- lithic command and control structure, where only the most restricted role is per- mitted for the private sector, where nor- mal healthy competition is prevented from improving efficiency, and where powerful and monopolistic public sector unions, not accountable to doctors or patients, exert far too much influence. The Harvard School of Public Health found that 67 percent of Canadian spe- cialists think the quality of care has declined by the highest percentage in the five countries it surveyed.
Our military is also in spiralling decline. The condition of Canada’s military is bordering on des- perate, and is now a national disgrace. This is especially galling to many Canadians, considering our great mili- tary history and traditions.
While our troops are being asked to serve in increasingly numerous and dangerous conflict zones overseas such as Afghanistan and Bosnia, they are stretched so thin that for troubled Haiti, a country very much within our hemispheric sphere of influence (Montreal contains one of the largest expatriate Haitian communities in the world), that we are hard-pressed to play an important role in the new peacekeeping mission there. In Afghanistan, our troops are sent out on dangerous missions in light 20- year-old vehicles that put them even more in harm’s way.
Deep and systemic problems in the capabilities of the Canadian Forces are not being addressed. The Conference of Defence Associations, the auditor general and other independent analysts have catalogued some of the most serious problems:
Capital equipment requirements face a shortfall of up to $30 billion by 2012.
For years, there was a deficit of some $1.5 billion in resources available for training and related functions.
Manpower in the regular forces has fallen by about 25 percent over the past seven years and numbers continue to drop.
The army has been described as in a ”œstate of near collapse” with soldiers in some units serving continuous rotations overseas with virtually no rest at home. The militia is in an especially bad condition and requires additional funding simply to pay people, to acquire equipment, and to train properly.
Personnel continue to leave the forces in large numbers due to policies that compromise opera- tional effectiveness, and a percep- tion that government does not take their role seriously.
In 2000-01, only $55 million in new funding was provided for capital equipment. According to the Conference of Defence Associations, the additional money was less than 50 percent of what would be needed to address the broader basis of the crisis in the Canadian Forces.
A third danger is paralysis of policy. In the absence of new people with new ideas, policy generation becomes unimaginative and stagnant. Liberal pol- icy is guided by polling data, and by elec- toral considerations, as the Liberals have never been shy to pilfer the best propos- als of other parties. In today’s highly competitive global community, where there can be no refuge from worldwide trends and pressures, such complacent, self-absorbed and negligent leadership has become disastrous for Canada.
A corollary to the lack of new policy initiatives is the tendency to perpetuate old, discredited and simply bad policies. We have mentioned massive wealth transfers to Atlantic Canada, and aspects of the Employment Insurance program which encourage dependency and dis- courage initiative. We might also include policies concerning aboriginal peoples, which have failed abysmally to address most of the real problems and challenges facing our First Nations, and have instead frequently exacerbated them.
A fourth danger of permanent Liberal rule is government by clique, and exclusion of all who are not mem- bers of the clique. The long Liberal hegemony in Ottawa has created a small, self-perpetuating oligarchy or aristocracy of governors, from which the vast majority of Canadians are per- manently excluded, and to which only bona fide members of the Liberal Party may expect to accede. Since power in the Liberal Party is concentrated in Ontario and Quebec (the source of all its leaders), or even more narrowly in Toronto and Montreal, few outsiders need apply. The Liberal near-monop- oly of power in Ottawa has also had the effect of moulding most of the public service in the party’s image, since the hiring and promotion of most of our public servants takes place under Liberal regimes. Another effect has been the defection to other arenas, such as provincial politics or the pri- vate sector, of many outstanding and public-spirited Canadians who are denied the opportunity to participate in the governance of their country simply because they are not Liberals, or could not bring themselves to become so. This has meant a vast loss of potential talent that in most nations would be welcomed and highly moti- vated to serve in the government of their country. One of the reasons for the comparative vigour of the US gov- ernment is the constitutional limit of two four-year terms for each president. This rule brings a wholesale change in the administration at least every eight years, attracting dynamic and motivat- ed men and women who know they have a limited time to make their mark, fight for their causes, and advance their dreams.
Donald Savoie, in Governing from the Centre, gives a timely analysis of the unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of the current prime minister. He says that government candidates in elections ”œhave little choice but to adopt the policies of the prime minister as prepared by a handful of his most trusted advisers rather than the policies of the party, to which all members were able to contribute.” He points out that Jean Chrétien abolished a large number of cabinet committees, including Priorities and Planning, and cabinet meet- ings became a time where briefings were presented, information was shared, and where the prime minister and certain ministers provided a general tour d’hori- zon. As one Chrétien cabinet minister called it, the cabinet became a ”œkind of focus group for the prime minister.” The Prime Minister’s Office exerted exorbitant amounts of control over the entire parlia- mentary process, and ”œCabinet has joined Parliament as an institution being bypassed. Real political debate and deci- sion making are increasingly elsewhere…” There is little early evidence that things will be much different in the Martin administration, notwithstanding the new PM’s mantra about redressing ”œthe demo- cratic deficit” and empowering MPs and Parliament as the real centres of power and policy discussion in Ottawa.
Indeed, former long-time Liberal MP John Bryden (now a Conservative) has said that central control is even stricter under Martin than under Chrétien.
A fifth danger, which became more evident in the last election, is the with- drawal from the political process of more and more Canadians, and espe- cially young people. In an electoral sys- tem that offered no real hope of a change in government, many Canadians saw no point in voting at all. The turnout in Ontario in the 2000 federal election, when none of the four parties was particularly attractive to the voters, was a miserable 60 percent of registered voters " an all-time record low. It is interesting and indicative that in the 1988 free trade election, the last one in this country about something that mattered, the turnout of 75 per- cent was historically average, but now looks simply historic beside the subse- quent voter rates of 70 percent in 1993, 67 percent in 1997, and barely over 60 percent in 2000.
Continuing uninterrupted and unchallenged Liberal rule is a recipe for the continuing gradual drift, decline and decay of our country. Only the pres- ence of a strong and united opposition in the House and in every region " an opposition that is truly respected and feared by the Liberals instead of routinely disdained and ignored " can force our government to be truly accountable to Canadians, and to either deliver or be replaced. With the long-overdue merger last December of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives to form the new Conservative Party of Canada, and with the resurgence of the NDP (especially in Ontario) under new leader Jack Layton, there is finally some hope that the Liberal grip on our national government may be weak- ened or even broken.
Peter G. White and Adam Daifallah are co-authors of Gritlock: Are the Liberals in Forever? from which this article is adapted and updated.