Thursday, February 28, 2019

Notes and updates UPDATED

Just to say I was pretty completely wrong in the post of February 19 when I speculated that differences over SNC-Lavalin were really a pretext for a larger disagreement between Jody Wilson-Raybould and Justin Trudeau over policy on Indigenous matters.  At the time I did not expect that it would turn out that cabinet and the PMO had trampled on the obligations of the attorney general.  It's pretty clear now that the issue of the AG's independence was real and serious!

Which is also a reminder: I try to make this a blog about history, but when I do drift into politics, I ain't an insider. I may have some (historically-informed) ideas, but I don't have any insider buzz about political events

But. I am still struck by the kind of complacency about prime ministerial autocracy expressed by political scientists and commentators. Journalists last night were speculating about if and when Justin Trudeau would throw Jody Wilson-Raybould out of the Liberal party, without a flicker of realization that such measures come from the same attitude that allows prime ministerial staffers the freedom to bully and threaten a government minister in the exercise of her duty.

Not just journalists take this view. I find it comes constantly from political scientists and constitutional scholars, who deny that there is any serious problem of PMO overreach and actually cite the current crisis as proof that prime ministers are held adequately responsible in our existing politics. A striking recent example (from a skilled and hardworking scholar) is this recent blog post by Philippe Lagass√©. For my complaint about another example, see here and scroll down.) They are everywhere once you become aware of them.

Update, March 4:  I've been criticizing the tolerance of journalists and scholars of prime ministerial autocracy. Let me just note that Andrew Coyne is now thinking much as I am, both about Philippe Lagass√©'s views and about the necessity of caucus control of leader selection (and removal):
If the system worked, it would not be the prime minister, having been credibly accused of something perilously close to obstruction of justice, musing aloud over whether his accuser can maintain her position in caucus. It would be the caucus deciding whether he can keep his.
Both he and I were writing before Jane Philpott's resignation today.

Update, March 1:  Russ Chamberlayne writes:
With the public comments last week of Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and Jody Wilson Raybould's mention of him yesterday, I got out Memoirs of a Very Civil Servant by Gordon Robertson, who held the Clerk position under Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. Feeling put off by the overly dramatic nature of some of Wernick's comments, I was drawn to Robertson's rational tone.

In his discussion of the Clerk's role, he makes (p 305) a point about good judgment:

"Success in it depends on judgment and confidence - good judgment on the part of the clerk, and the sure confidence of, above all, the prime minister but also of ministers and heads of departments."
He then quotes Isaiah Berlin's definition of political good judgment: "To be rational in any sphere, to display good judgement in it, is to apply those methods which have turned out to work best in it."
It's been a long time since I looked at Robertson's memoir, but when I did I was struck by his avidity for striking a constitutional deal of almost any kind, without much concern about the principles the deal would sustain or ignore, and his frustration while in retirement with Pierre Trudeau's arguments of principle when there were deals to be had at Meech and Charlottetown. I might have said Wernick's recent performance was similar. Neither Clerk was specifically partisan, both were wholly focussed on getting the government what it wanted, without much concern for the right thing.

But Robertson, quoted by Chamberlayne, goes on to wonder whether: 
 "...the balance in our government today [(ca. 2000)] does in fact 'work best in it.' An overly great concentration of power at the centre has a price with the best ministers and the most creative and effective heads of departments. They are the very ones who do not need to stay, if they find their role too limited or frustrated by central interference."
Which sounds like something I might agree with.
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