Thursday, January 21, 2010

Final thoughts on the shuffle

With my post yesterday on Rona Ambrose’s prorogation mountain climbing I did touch somewhat on this week’s shuffle of Stephen Harper’s cabinet, but I did want to comment a bit more broadly on the topic before moving on.

I don’t think it was really much of a shuffle of note. Most of the major jobs stayed the same. Sure, Lisa Raitt was down (but not out, what do you need to do to get booted by Harper?) and Rona Ambrose was up. Whatev.

Much attention seems to be focusing around Stockwell Day’s move to Treasury Board, which is being taken as a sign that the government is about to get serious about cutting spending. I need to take a contrarian view on that one for three reasons.

First, this government was the highest spending government in Canadian history BEFORE the downturn and stimulus, so if they did suddenly decide to be fiscally prudent it would be quite a turnaround for them.

Second, even if they did want to go on spending cut bonanza, what is it about Stock Day that makes him the ideal poster child for probity? I don’t recall his term as Alberta Treasurer being marked by spending restraint. All I do recall is the government having to pay for him to defend against lawsuits and pay for settlements.

Third, there seems to be some fundamental confusion about the role of the president of the Treasury Board. To quote the Winnipeg Sun:

The president of the Treasury Board’s job is to monitor that spending after a fiscal blueprint has been approved by Parliament. If the budget itself — expected in March — does not contain the kind of frugality required to start reversing this orgy of government spending we’ve seen in recent years, Harper could appoint Ebenezer Scrooge to head the Treasury Board and it wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans.

If the government wanted to launch a rationalization and efficiency kick, asking departments to give back existing budget, then TB head would be the guy to lead it. I recall Reg Alcock leading a program review under Paul Martin. I wouldn’t count on big savings though. Every government comes into power promising to cut waste, and always finds there’s far less waste then they thought. Or are willing to cut.

No, if you want to cut spending it’s not done by Treasury Board. It’s done by Finance during the budget process. And last I checked, that department is still headed by the highest spending finance minister in Canadian history, the same guy who left Ontarioins with a massive hidden deficit. With Jim Flaherty still in his job, I’ll believe this new probity when I see it.

No cabinet personalities

The overarching thought I had when considering this shuffle is how bland and interchangeable most of the Harper ministers are. And it really speaks to the differences in governing philosophy and the role of government between Liberals and Conservatives.

It seemed to me that the Liberals always many activist ministers, who pushed and fought for programs and initiatives that they believed in and were important to them. John Manley and later Brian Tobin on wireless broadband. Lloyd Axworthy on land mines. David Anderson on a range of environmental files. And many others. They had things they wanted to get done, and they lobbied hard to do so. They had personalities.

In contrast, the Conservative ministers seem more simple managers. They get their marching orders from the PMO and they work quietly and diligently on the file, managing the day to day. But I get no sense of a vision, of any minister being truly engaged in their portfolios, bringing drive and a personal interest to move files forward. Perhaps the one exception is Jason Kenney who, while I often disagree with him on policy, is very much personally engaged in his portfolio and seems to have a vision driving him. The rest of them, I sense you could have everyone trade with the minister to their left at the cabinet table and it wouldn’t change a thing.

Of course, both Conservatives and Liberals would say that their approach is the right one. And it wouldn’t (just) be partisanship. Liberals believe in activist government as a force for good in society, Conservatives want government to manage its narrow responsibilities well and otherwise stay out of the way.

It’s an interesting contrast, though. In the end, there’s only one minister that matters, and that’s the one in the Langevin Block. The other pieces are entirely interchangeable.

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CanadianSense said...

Another interesting post. I am not sure how you can hold the current gov't responsible for Chalk River -Maple Reactors and not the Liberals since they CR was to be shut down in 2000. Six years before the CPC took over. Where was the Liberals Plan?

This government with the support of the Liberals passed this budget. In fact this minority government came to power and has had the Bloc, NDP and Liberal each take turn voting for the CPC agenda.

Since coming to power in 2006, in two elections, a general and by-elections the CPC have added 19 seats.

Funny people we Canadians, we keep sending more CPC to Ottawa.

Jeff, the Liberals offered nothing for 2009. Not a single Policy alternative introduced in the HOC.

One policy in 10 months - Daycare, still not introduced in HOC for debate.

This is the second time our PM has asked for input from all including the opposition. In December 2008 MI rejected any consultation, looks like another repeat in 2010.

If not now, when are the Liberals going to offer an alternative policy for debate in parliament?

Are they more interested in holding publicity stunts, tours and fundraising dinners again?

The majority of MP's are in opposition why can't they get their act together and introduce/ vote on alternative policies to the existing government or do you subscribe to the opposition can't be effective in a minority parliament?

Gene Rayburn said...

I know how you can hold the current government responsible for Chalk River - they are the current government. Instead of claiming to get things done maybe the conservatives should grow a pair and actually do something.

This blaming others schtick got tired two years ago.

Why do you constantly bring up the libs not making policies in 2009 CS? Last time I checked we had a conservative government.

Now I know we can't expect responsibility from this government but could they please try to do their jobs themselves for a change? Or is the talent pool too thin for that CS?

CanadianSense said...

Pardon me Jeff,


best of luck ignoring the facts. Chalk River - See auditor general Sheila Fraser.

See experts on Liberal boondoggle on Maple Reactors.

If you are too lazy to do your research stick to chatting with closed minds from the clown car brigade.

900ft Jesus said...

Niles made a good point about Stock over at my place. Harper goes for the appearance. Stock appeals to the Reformers, good christian and all that. Plus he has that reputation (unwarranted, but still there) for being cautious with taxpayers' money.

You're right in that budget decisions are made elsewhere - Finance, but overseen by Harper, so what Steve really wants Doris will be asked to manage announcements, but I'm sure the decisions as to what departments will take cuts to what programs, what benefits will be cut, how wages will be affected, and how many jobs will be slashed have already been drawn up by Steve.

But I'm sure if anything bad happens, it"s the Liberals fault because no politician can ever be accused of anything ever again since the Libs didn't fix every problem in the country.

And because of Adscam. How come you never mentioned Adscam? You really should mention Adscam in your posts.