Updated Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Trouble With Normal Is It Always Gets Worse

Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.

Hire a man to get timely, factual data from our Government...

So I had a conversation with Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page today. 

Lil' ol' me.

I picked up the phone, called 613-992-8026, spoke to his secretary, explained who I was and left my number.  About 15 minutes later, I get a phone call back and there he was.


I'd intended to only ask a few questions, keep it simple, try not to take up too much of his time.  30 minutes later I hung up feeling, to say the least, incredibly positive about this man - his clear love of his work and the system that he maintains (which, incidentally, helps to keep our Government accountable to us).

The questions I asked were:

How best can Canadians support you in your work to keep our Government accountable?

What other departments should Canadians be supporting as they work to protect us?

Do you have any advice for those Canadians who feel disenfranchised from the current Government?

As I begin I want to be clear that what I'm writing here is a collection of memory and hastily scribbled notes as I tried to keep up during our conversation (sorry, I'm no Stephen Maher).

One of the main points that he took care to stress is that his department is only an intermediary - that his main purpose is to help provide MPs with quality information so that they can then make informed decisions about where they stand and what they'll support.

He also personally believes that the Fundamental Principals of the Westminster system are rock solid - when they're allowed to work.  

One particular way to undermine the system is if our MPs are made to vote without having access to complete and/or accurate information.

With that said:

How best can Canadians support you in your work to keep our Government accountable?

(Paraphrasing) The court of public opinion is very important - in some ways more important than even a successful court ruling.  The ruling may get you the win, but if no one knows or cares then it's nowhere near as powerful.  Putting pressure on your MP to be accountable and to hold others accountable is of vital importance.  There are important questions that need to be answered:

$5.4 billion is being cut in our budget but from where?  What will be affected?

Freezing direct program spending for five years is going to be a financial challenge.

What's the plan?

He mentioned that there's a bit of an office saying going around in that 'The trouble with Normal is it always gets worse'.  A lot of politicians are taking great care to say 'oh, it's normal' or this is the 'new normal' but that can't be acceptable.

(Incidentally, that saying is taken from a Bruce Cockburn song of the same name.)

A brief side foray into Mr. Baird's comments about Mr. Page 'overstepping his mandate' changed the tone for a moment - he says he's well-aware of his 'mandate' (which extends fully into March 2013).

I briefly considered asking what he thinks will happen when his mandate comes to an end, but thought better of it.  Seeing as how his office has come under attack over the years... yeah.  History has shown that our Prime Minister is more than happy to replace 'problem' people with what I would consider 'yes men'.

How do we protect the folks like Kevin Page? The ones who're doing good, hard work on our behalf?
Ultimately, he said that all things aside he felt encouraged by the recent (so recent it's not even up in HTML yet) release of the following committee report [pdf]: 

Strengthening Parliamentary Scrutiny Of Estimates And Supply

What other departments should Canadians be supporting as they work to protect us?

Looking back on it I didn't really get a clear answer to this one - in fact this question and Do you have any advice for those Canadians who feel disenfranchised from the current Government? pretty much merged into one long answer.  

Essentially, though he can't specifically name other departments off hand, he said that the best thing  we can do is to educate ourselves on how our Government is supposed to work - that way if something's not working, we're more likely to be able to single out the problem rather than just assuming that the whole system is broken.

Following up on that, he sent me one of his favourite readings - a selection from (deep breath)

“Responsibility, Accountability and the Role of Deputy Ministers in the Government of Canada – Restoring Accountability - Research Studies: Volume 3 - Linkages : Responsibilities and Accountabilities” (pages 117 & 118)

Or, to substitute a short title: Who answers to who and for what.

Essentially, if you ever wanted to know how your Government works (or is supposed to work), in a nutshell, this pretty much sums it up:

The fundamental principles underlying responsible parliamentary government in Canada are as follows:

  • the executive powers of the state are vested in the Queen (represented by the Governor General);
  • the Governor General almost invariably acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and the other Ministers who form the Cabinet;
  • the Governor General appoints as Prime Minister the leader of the party that enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons (although an incumbent Prime Minister who is defeated in an election has the right to meet the new House and test whether he or she has its confidence);
  • the Prime Minister chooses the persons who will be Ministers in the Cabinet;
  • the Prime Minister and the other members of Cabinet must have seats in Parliament (or get them within a reasonable time frame);
  • most members of Cabinet must be Members of the House of Commons (but at least one Senator must be named to Cabinet to represent the Government in that House);
  • the House of Commons is the confidence chamber: if the Prime Minister or the Government loses the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister must resign or recommend to the Governor General that Parliament be dissolved and a general election held;
  • the resignation of the Prime Minister results in the resignation of Cabinet;
  • the House of Commons holds the power of the purse: no taxation can be imposed without the consent of the Commons, and the Commons must consent to all expenditures of money;
  • only members of Cabinet may introduce in the House of Commons a bill to raise revenue (such bills cannot be initiated in the Senate);
  • only members of Cabinet may introduce in the House of Commons a bill to spend money (such bills cannot be initiated in the Senate);
  • only members of Cabinet may introduce in the Commons amendments to increase the expenditure of money (such amendments cannot be initiated in the Senate);
  • all members of Cabinet are collectively responsible for the Cabinet decision-making process and accountable to the House of Commons for the policies of the Government ( Ministers must resign or be dismissed if they disagree with the Government’s policies);
  • Ministers are individually accountable to the Commons for their personal conduct;
  • Ministers with portfolios are individually accountable to the Commons for the management of their departments;
  • the Cabinet is supported by the public service in the management and administration of the Government of Canada;
  • public servants are,through a hierarchical organization,accountable to Deputy Ministers, who, in turn, are accountable to Ministers;
  • one function of Cabinet is to manage the public service and to be held accountable to the House of Commons; and
  • one function of the Commons is to hold the Cabinet to account for the management of the public service, but not to manage the public service.  Because the House of Commons holds the power of the purse, it follows that the House must not only consent to all taxation and all expenditures but also have the means of satisfying itself that all items of expenditure and all receipts are dealt with in accordance with the legislation authorizing them.The House must be able to check that expenditures and receipts are dealt with in accordance with Parliament’s intentions and the principles of parliamentary control,with due regard to economy,efficiency and effectiveness. This matter will be examined in the section of this study dealing with the mechanisms of political and professional financial accountability
In regards to how Canadians are, more and more, feeling detached from their government he said that it ultimately comes down to individual choice.  He feels that we must ask ourselves:

"Does it matter? Trust in our elected Institutions? Does it matter?"

He pointed out how all around the world people are fighting to have their say, to topple corrupt regimes and bring power back to the people.  For him, he rides his bike into work every day past the War Memorial and that he thinks about the sacrifice these people made for us - how they were willing to give everything

and he hopes that we don't want to lose that.

Finally, he sent me a link to a rather interesting website based on a book printed back in the 80s, How Canadians Govern Themselves.

Now I'd never even heard of this book before so, as someone who wants to understand the engine, this seems like an interesting afternoon read.  Give it a once-over, see if you agree.

All-in-all, I left the conversation feeling encouraged by this man who seems to genuinely give a damn about the integral function that he performs on all of our behalf.

I got the sense that he's in it for Democracy's sake and is a true believer in that regard.

Which, well, I can see how that might put him in conflict with our Prime Minister.

I highly recommend that if you have (respectful) questions you get in touch with him, give him a call or email him at pbo-dpb@parl.gc.ca.

Let's show some love for someone who's working hard to help keep our government accountable to us... and maybe help him with a bit of the heavy lifting (some vocal support for his upcoming court case couldn't hurt).



thefogman said...

We need more people like Kevin Paige and Brandon Laraby!

FrankeJames said...

Great job Brandon! Delighted you picked up the phone to interview Kevin Page. Who are you going to call next?

My two cents (you can edit this out) -- set up the interview so the reader can quickly see who is speaking. You can do this with italics, bolding, font change etc.

As my friend Canadian musician Mendelson Joe tells me, "Keep going. Don't stop!"


hornblower said...

I have that Forsey book & I do recommend it highly. Not sure if it's still so now but I got mine free courtesy of the Govt of Canada. I think it was the parliamentary library site? I asked where I could find a current copy, they emailed back asking for an address & how many copies did I want?, and presto, a week later, it was in my hands. Everyone should get it & distribute it - as well as the link to that site - widely. Then when someone says but "Stephen Harper was elected as PM" you can beat them over the head with it.

Mogs said...

So in act I Stephen appoints Page.

In act II page has to sue the government for failing to release information.

But in act III The King Stephen asks how dare he try to bring honest and open government to my regime?

In act IV Stephen shouts of with the Page's head!

The End!

Gavin Stairs said...

Excellent, Brandon. And Mogs, that is not the end of the play. In Act V, King Harper goes for re-election and is defeated because an aroused and informed electorate realizes that he is out of control, undemocratic and in defiance of his mandate, and the will of the people. It's up to you and me, and a few millions other electors.

miramichimike said...

Great job Brandon

the salamander said...

bravo .. to you and Kevin Page, both.. A small flame burns bright where curiosity and responsibility are exemplified.. We need about 10 to 50 thousand more conversations just like your recent one.. whether by telephone, or over a fence.. or over beers on a patio.. or at a playground. Those conversations are what defines Canada.. not oafish behavior and dim ideologies or robocalls..

We understand what happens when fish habitat is damaged.. but what happens when the population and electorate strip away the habitat of political animals ? Do they run away naked ? Do they stand there defiant and naked ? We are starting to see signs of this.. Mackay, Del Mastro, Clement, Oliver, Baird, Fantino, Ashfield, all getting more and more shrill and stark naked.. and pudgy Steve.. getting more oily by the moment.. propelled by his wet petro-dream

Strange how we barely knew these thugs names when they were a minority government, now they're household names locked in scandal, braying, deceitful, bullying and cowardly and stunningly repelling..

Keep on dialing !!!

Vennell said...

Thank you for all your hard work Brandon, your energy amazes me. Your interview was informative to say the least, I particularly like the links to further reading material. If I wasn't so old, I would say I'd like to be more like you when I grow up. Keep going, you are making a difference.