Globe and Mail

Raising red flags about the faltering state of Canadian democracy

Monday, April 19, 1999
The Globe and Mail

Donald Savoie broke the unwritten rules. When you are being honoured by your betters in the blue-suit or silk-and-pearls sets, you are supposed to say nice things about the group doing the honouring, the kind of mutual-admiration clichés that contribute to the general bonhomie of the occasion.

Mr. Savoie was one of four people from the public and private sectors chosen by the Public Policy Forum as "outstanding Canadians who have led the way in the search for innovative approaches to managing the nation's business," in the words of Lawrence Strong, the PPF chairman.

But Mr. Savoie, an academic cum bureaucrat cum policy reformer, chose the podium at the Forum's testimonial dinner last week to raise large red flags about the current state of Canadian democracy: Canada's political institutions are in a state of crisis, he argued, that threatens both their credibility and their relevance. His was a jarring message that cut through the general fog of self-congratulation like a knife -- especially when he told the grandees present they might have got it all wrong.

The Public Policy Forum was created a dozen years ago to play something of a brokerage role between governments and the private sector. It finances and publicizes research into public administration and sees itself as a communications bridge between what are often two solitudes: business and government. In reality, it has focused more on the relationship between the private sector and the bureaucracy than on the political aspects of government.

It's a world in which Mr. Savoie has swum like a fish in the sea. He currently teaches at the University of Moncton, where he founded the Canadian Institute for Research on Regional Development, but he has also been an assistant secretary at the Treasury Board and done a stint at the Canadian Centre for Management Development, the federal civil-service training school. He wrote the report that led to the creation of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

He has also published 14 books on public policy and administration, the most recent of which, Governing from the Centre, The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics, is a critical assessment of the government of Jean Chrétien that is causing a stir in the chattering classes.

As he told the dinner guests, real progress has been made in modernizing government and the civil service, but there is a limit to how much the public service can be improved if political institutions are not working properly.

Despite massive changes in society, Canadians continue to assume that political institutions can continue to function in the traditional way. "No country can long endure if its political institutions are in a state of disrepair. This is now the case in Canada."

The Canadian Senate is unlike any other in the world -- "unelected, expensive and without much relevance" -- while Question Period no longer holds the government accountable. Elected members of Parliament are searching for a proper role and sense of purpose.

"Every government department is being affected by the information revolution, the global economy and a more aggressive and different media. Yet, our political institutions seem oblivious to all of this. Our political parties have become little more than election-day organizations, unable or unwilling to stake out firm policy positions."

Moreover, he told the senior bureaucrats in the audience, this is a debate that the public service cannot lead. "Others will have to come forward. . . . It may well be that we have been looking at the wrong end of the problem all along. Perhaps, in our attempt to fix our system of governance, we should have first fixed our national political institutions."

Some may say that Professor Savoie is a bit late in recognizing the shift in power toward the centre, especially into the hands of the prime minister. Journalists have been dealing with it and contributing to the trend for years. But his critique of the failing institutions, backed up by extensive research and systematic analysis, is a warning cry that goes well beyond popular journalism.
Hugh Winsor can be reached at

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