Issue 231: July 2005

 “The Centre calls the shots...”

While we may wonder at and despair over the weakness of Parliament, the confusing role played by senior civil servants – deputy ministers in particular – and the intimacy between senior politicians, civil servants and the corporate sector, we remain almost willfully short of understanding the real structure of political power in Canada. Maybe we just really want to believe we live in a representative democracy.

It is also highly unusual for the press in Canada to actually identify where power lies, by whom it is exercised, and to whose benefit. Therefore it was a pleasant surprise to see the headline “‘The Centre calls the shots so don't blame minister” on Barry Wilson's column in the July 7 th edition of Western Producer. (Western Producer is the major farm weekly of the Canadian prairies, founded in 1923 by the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, but now owned by a non-farm business enterprise.) Wilson's been reporting from Ottawa for as long as I can remember and knows his way around.

“The Centre” is not a term frequently heard or read in the Canadian media or political discussions, although it is a term commonly used in the Indian media with reference to the power centre of the Indian government. (To see for yourself, go to where the complete text of this excellent bi-weekly magazine is available. Frontline puts every other English-language news magazine I know of to shame with its literacy, coverage and analysis.)

It is worth wondering why two former British colonies, Canada and India, have such different political cultures. In India, as expressed in Frontline, there is intense detailed discussion of personalities and policies, while in Canada we seem to allow the politics and realities of power in Ottawa to be hidden behind the facade of an extraordinarily weak Parliament. In turn, it is considered bad taste to demand of political candidates what policies they advocate. I recall, for example, when Brian Mulroney was campaigning in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, for his first seat in Parliament when we were farming there. We were told to shut up when we tried to ask questions about policy. The political game was to pick and vote for ”the winner” and enjoy the favours which would presumably follow. So we get media-concocted side shows while the cronyism, corruption and power games, however brutal and anti-democratic and destructive they may be, go unattended and unilluminated.

You won't find The Centre listed in a directory of either government or parliamentary offices. As Wilson describes it, The Centre refers to a combination of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the Privy Council Office (PCO). The PMO is filled with appointed political advisors, often long-time business associates of the Prime Minister, while the PCO consists of trusted (and also appointed) senior civil servants, in particular, deputy ministers. The Centre both makes and manages policy decisions.

Calling the shots from centre ice

To illustrate the point about the power of The Centre, Wilson looks at the strange public behaviour of the current Minister of Agriculture, Andy Mitchell. It's a bit like looking behind the curtain to see who is pulling the puppet's strings, and it does not give one much confidence in the parliamentary process in Canada. Or is it just corruption (not a word we hear spoken with any frequency) that is spoiling the process?

One could equally well examine the behaviour of our neo-liberal provincial governments which, at least in British Columbia, are following the same script of concentrating all power in the office of the Premier, while frequently shuffled Cabinet ministers scramble to figure out how to preside over ministries which are high-handedly reconfigured with no consultation with the senior management or the government's own human relations staff, let alone the front-line civil servants or, heaven forbid, the public. The latest transfiguration in BC is the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, which has become the Ministry of Agriculture and Land and has (or is trying to) swallow some 600 more staff and a whole new set of responsibilities for the Land Commissions with, apparently, absolutely no forewarning. It only make sense if, in fact, they are not supposed to do anything.

“The PCO sits at the top of the federal civil service. Unlike the PMO, it is supposed to provide the government, primarily the Prime Minister, with non-partisan advice and support. People in the PCO are typically very sharp and determined and most have spent years working their way up the public service ladder. The PCO takes its cues from the PM and then manages the government. . . The PCO also, in the words of Donald Savoie (Governing from the Centre: Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics, Univ. of Toronto Press,1996), “supports the Prime Minister's power to recommend appointments by providing substantive policy and management advice on certain senior appointments, including the appointment of deputy ministers and heads of agencies.” This is a very important point to bear in mind, especially when it comes to Deputy Ministers. . .

“It is the PM, working with the PCO, that appoints the Deputy Ministers; the Cabinet Ministers have virtually no say. . . Through the Deputy Ministers, the PM and his advisors can keep a very tight reign on Cabinet Ministers. This chain of command makes the Deputy Ministers powerful instruments in the exercise of the PM's orders. . . The Cabinet Ministers have lost out as power has shifted to the PCO and the Deputy Ministers. . . The voices of elected officials are excluded. The voices of self-serving non-elected officials set public policy.” – Devlin Kuyek, The Real Board of Directors , The Ram's Horn, 2002, pp.43-46 (This study is available in PDF at )

We may not like Devlin Kuyek's conclusions, but until we are prepared to be inquisitive, rude and demanding of our elected “representatives,” The Centre will continue to govern as its corporate bosses think is in their best interests, privatization will march ‘ahead' and the public subsidies will continue to go to the wealthy and powerful.  BK


#231: July 2005 TOC
The Centre Calls the Shots 
 what is the real cost-benefit? 
The Myth of Development:
 funding from international financial institutions pretends that everyone can live like the wealthy Northerners 
Organic Soy and Corn Beat Conventional:
 a new study proves organics better, especially in drought 
PBR Legislation in Cold Storage:
 no new seed law in Canada -- for now 
Food Sovereignty:
 local production is what will feed the world 
Dow-Cargill partnership crumbles