Eugene Lang may well be right that significant change is coming to Ottawa after the October 2015 federal election, but his speculation about the nature of that change leaves much to be desired, and at times his reasoning is simply baffling.
To be fair, his assessment of the Conservatives is probably close to the mark. A Stephen Harper majority — however unlikely — would no doubt take the country into even deeper uncharted waters. By contrast, a Harper minority, as Lang himself suggests, would likely see the Conservatives try to hunker down and stay close to their existing formula of domestic “tough on crime” legislation and aggressively “principled” foreign policy positions, hardly the stuff of major change. Surprisingly, though, Lang fails to mention the likely implications of a deteriorating economy and the collapsing energy sector, on which Harper has hung his hat for so long. Given their “low taxation, balanced budget” mantra, this issue actually could result in some significant change, in the form of more drastic cuts to public programs, and notably to the welfare state, to say nothing of increased federal-provincial conflict.
As for the NDP, Lang has correctly drawn attention to its key problem if it were to form a government: namely, the inevitable and deep-seated conflict that would emerge between official party policy and the complex realities of governing. However, his argument would be more convincing if he had underlined the fact that — unlike the other parties — the NDP considers party resolutions to be binding on the parliamentary wing. In addition, while the Bank of Canada example is interesting, it pales in comparison with some other problematic resolutions, such as the Sherbrooke resolution on Quebec separation. Similarly, Lang fails to note that the federal party’s formal positions on energy policy would inevitably lead to considerable federal-provincial conflict, especially with the new provincial NDP government in Alberta.
But it is in his analysis of the likely developments under a Liberal government that Lang’s speculation takes on a surreal quality, descending into a bewildering rant about the public service, incidentally rewriting history in the process and, in the end, standing logic on its head. After nearly a decade of the Harper Conservatives’ outright disdain for evidence-based decision-making, one would have assumed that a return to rational policy-making would be welcomed with open arms by observers such as Lang, regardless of which party was doing so. Certainly the Liberals — who created the modern federal professional and merit-based public service — could be expected to resume a positive, collaborative working relationship with federal bureaucrats. But logically this should be described as a positive development, not criticized at length. As for Lang’s bizarre assertion that the 1993 Red Book — a landmark initiative that laid out in detail the party’s platform planks — was somehow manipulated and perverted by bureaucrats, this would surely be news to both ministers and senior public servants of the day, let alone Jean Chrétien, who often recounted how the Clerk of the Privy Council and senior deputies took great pride in reporting to him on their progress in implementing his Red Book commitments. Even more disturbing is Lang’s unspoken assumption that public servants in general see themselves as locked in some sort of competition to thwart or undermine elected politicians, an implied accusation that flies in the face of their professionalism and integrity and the basic bureaucratic precepts of neutrality and impartiality.
Lang’s examples of surprising policy differences under a Liberal government are equally bewildering. Take foreign policy. Of course Liberals would resume a more balanced policy vis-à-vis the Middle East, just as they would attempt to restore Canada’s damaged international reputation at the UN and on development assistance. But these are stated Liberal policies and have been for decades. There is no reason to suppose that public servants would have to manipulate them into doing this. Nor would it be necessary for bureaucrats to “move” Justin Trudeau on tax policy, since he has already announced several specific measures his party would take if it were to form a government.
Finally, there are some important lacunae in Lang’s vision of Ottawa under the various party scenarios. One would hope, for example, that under both Liberal and NDP governments there would be a renewed respect for Parliament, the Supreme Court and international conventions. One could speculate equally that conflict of interest, access to information and ethics legislation would resume some meaningful role in accountability, along with the parliamentary budget officer. Hopefully, civil society would resume its role in public debate without fear and intimidation, and the dangerous blurring of the line between government and the governing party — as reflected in the Conservatives’ penchant for using public expenditures for partisan purposes — would cease. Certainly there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that a Harper government, either majority or minority, would alter its long-standing autocratic approach to these institutions and issues. At the same time, there may be reason for concern, as opposition parties observe the way in which the Conservatives have diminished so much of the democratic infrastructure of the state with apparent impunity.
In the end, Lang’s analysis raises some interesting points but seems to have missed the mark on many of the important issues that hopefully will engage Canadians as they go to the polls and make their choice as to which party will form the next government.
Brooke Jeffrey is a professor of political science at Concordia University in Montreal and the author of Dismantling Canada: Stephen Harper’s New Conservative Agenda. She is a former policy adviser to the Liberal Party.