SNC Lavalin, a large and successful Quebec-based global engineering firm, is now a name synonymous with misuse of authority in government. Particularly, the power and influence of the Prime Minister of Canada and the PMO.
Heads of government, business or any organization are usually the prominent figures of that organization; the person most identified with it. There’s nothing unusual about this; the head honcho is the one most often in the spotlight, the one most accountable for an organization’s performance and results, and the one wielding the most influence on an organization, through both his or her position of leadership, and the management authority and structure they establish to realize their vision and goals. In an organization the size of the Government of Canada, effective leadership, management, organization and personnel are very important. So how is it that one person, surrounded and supported by a staff of 150 people, who in turn are led by the prime minister's chief of staff and principal secretary, seems to operate without the rest of government?
He doesn’t, really. Cabinet ministers and the civil service they manage do run government. And there are rules and protocols in place to enable the civil service to carry out work objectively. However, the PM and the PMO do wield enormous influence on ministers and the civil service, largely through the PMO chief of staff, principal secretary and even the Clerk of the Privy Council (deputy minister to the prime minister, secretary to cabinet and head of the public service). It’s human nature; the boss says jump, we jump, or else.
That influence and interference have grown, probably for 50 years now. Prime ministers, and premiers, are elected because of popular leadership and campaign pledges. Successful election campaigns are largely the result of controlled, strategic campaign tactics and communications. More and more, what candidates speak to are issues and policies that the party leader has endorsed. There is little room for bad communications and political gaffs. These control tactics follow the leader to the top, along with his or her inner circle, who continue to exercise the boss’s will.
MPs and MLAs can be challenged to represent their constituencies well and ministers likewise their portfolios without PMO/Premier’s Office sanction. It certainly helps if one ingratiates themselves to the boss and his staff, or takes the harder route of building a network of government colleagues, all with their own issues to address. It seems seedy but, alas, it’s rather ordinary behaviour in large organizations (and fodder for humourists).
So why the big deal now in Ottawa? First, a principled minister was challenged on a course of action by the PMO. She didn’t budge (note end of second paragraph above). Second, protocols were broken and laws challenged. Three, it exposed poor leadership, low ethics and bad issues management. Four, it was very public and it’s an election year.
So, is democracy dead? Is government dysfunctional? No, but the value and effectiveness of both are being challenged. The need for a vigilant citizenry with wise and compassionate leadership remains critical for best serving and protecting democracy and its institutions.
Roger Jackson is a former deputy minister and a St. Albert resident.