Just Trust Us: The
Erosion of Accountability in Canada, by J. Patrick Boyer, Breakout Educational Network in
Association with Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2003.
Former Members of Parliament
have a unique perspective on the study of parliamentary government. Their
experience is have hands on, rather than theoretical. Unlike career civil
servants they bear the scars of electoral battle and understand the role of
partisan politics. Even those who have tasted defeat remain less cynical than
the average journalist or tv commentator.
Patrick Boyer is a former
Progressive Conservative MP having sat in the House of Commons from 1984 to
1992 and served as a committee chairman and parliamentary secretary. Before his
election to the House he was a prolific writer, mainly on electoral law. Since
returning to private life he has continued to reflect upon public policy as a
consultant, professor and author.
This book stems from some work
he did for the “underground royal commission”, a self appointed group of
concerned citizens, who have produced sixteen books and several hours of
television documentary on what they consider the key issues facing Canada at
the start of the new century.
If responsible government is
the essence of parliamentary government, accountability is the glue that holds
the system together. “Accountability is an ethical quest and social
imperative before it is a political doctrine”(p. 151). This book is
intended to cause reflection and stimulate rethinking of “how our venerable
institutions and practices meant to achieve accountability first atrophied into
irrelevance then descended into irresponsibility” (p. 25)
The symptoms of our
contemporary malaise are well know and include the decline in voter turnout,
the burgeoning underground economy, the feeling of powerlessness among the
Canadian public, and of course the disillusionment of many elected Members who
find themselves little more than voting machines for the party.
“It was fitting, I thought
that an entire constituency of citizens would send to Ottawa as their stand in
and spokesperson someone who would confront the same feelings of powerlessness
and ineffectiveness they did. Perhaps this is what it really means when
we say we have representative democracy!”(p. 29)
But Mr. Boyer goes beyond the
usual litany of complaints to identify both institutional and cultural factors
that explain why consent among the governed has withered away, and Parliament
has abdicated its primary role of calling to account those who wield power.
The first institutional problem
is the way our traditional constitutional division of powers has been overtaken
by the demands of modern society. With no single government solely
responsible for healthcare, the environment, agriculture, education,
infrastructure, etc and with so many intergovernmental mechanisms it has
becoming increasingly difficult to hold anyone to account and not surprisingly
many have given up trying.
Another institutional fact,
much smaller but still significant, was a change in the procedures of the House
of Commons made in 1969. It removed the requirement that Parliament approve the
government’s spending estimates. Instead they are deemed adopted in June
even if Parliament has not looked at them. Originally this seemed like a
good idea since other mechanisms were added to make up for the loss of
scrutiny. But there is now a consensus emerging among even the strongest
proponents of these changes that it effectively made the role of parliamentary
approval a sham. The government’s wish not to have its payroll held up by
Parliament, as happened in the 1960s, and members desire not to spend the
summer in Ottawa debating estimates is understandable. But “nobody seems to
have thought about simply changing the government’s fiscal year so that
Parliament could thoroughly debate spending during the long, dark winter rather
than during one of the few hot weather months of the year.” (p. 64).
Non institutional factors
responsible for a decline in an accountability include Keynesian economics
which justifies overspending in times of economic downturn. If we remove the
psychological discipline imposed by a belief that government, like people, must
ultimately live within their means, then there is little reason to worry about
balanced budgets and accountability is diminished.
The use of “delegated
arrangements” to set up organisations having discretionary authority to
redistribute public money is also detrimental to the concept of accountability.
Governments have become adept at creative book keeping which undermine
the trust upon which accountability reside. Indeed the public accounts
and estimates which in the 1940s and 50s were understandable to any person
capable of reading a household budget are today often incomprehensible even to
expert chartered accountants. (p. 65).
The increasing influence of
lobbyists is also identified as a factor in the decline of accountability. Who
would willingly agree to subject themselves to account if others are able to
escape being held to account?
This is a very thoughtful and
troubling analysis of the state of Canadian government at this moment in time.
Perhaps the easiest criticism to make is that it is a thinly veiled
Conservative attack on the Liberal Government of Jean Chrétien. But that would
not be fair. Although Mr. Boyer is critical of many policies of the Liberal
government, his critique extends back 50 years and includes both Liberal and
One is left a bit frustrated
that the author steps back from the logical consequences of his analysis. For
example having shown how intergovernmental overlap can undermine accountability
does it not follow that we have to question federalism itself? How much longer
do we maintain, as an article of faith, our 19th century constitution with
institutions developed in a much different era.
Mr. Boyer does call for more
powers for the provinces and that is certainly one option. But another
option, if the goal is more accountability, could be a state with a single
level of government. That would certainly resolve the jurisdiction blur he
identifies so eloquently. Or perhaps we should be looking at a simplified
system with only national and city governments, or confederal arrangements as
proposed by Quebec governments from time to time.
Mr. Boyer passes too lightly
over globalisation as a possible factor for the loss of accountability.
If voter turnout is declining, if young people are turned off politics,
if tax evasion is on the rise, if the image of politicians is at an all
time low perhaps some of this reflects a belief that decisions affecting our
life are no longer made by the governments or parliamentarians we control.
Questions of continental
integration and interdependence have to be addressed if we are trying to
explain the decline in accountability. Mr. Boyer does question what
he calls “false interdependence” which he defines as subsidies to inefficient
industries or open ended subsidies to compensate fishermen. He
makes a convincing argument about the harm these programs do to the concept of
accountability. But there is no sign he is willing to rethink our
commitment to free trade and integration, which like federalism has been raised
to the level of dogma.
If we are going to continue
down the path to continental economic integration surely we need political institutions
in which some level of accountability can be exercised. If that is
impossible perhaps we should start thinking of promoting self sufficiency
rather than integration as a goal of public policy (keeping in mind that
complete self sufficiency like complete integration is nether possible nor
Just Trust Us is not the
end of Mr. Boyer’s reflections on public policy and hopefully some of these
larger questions will be examined in subsequent works.
Canadian Parliamentary Review