Friday, November 04, 2005

Harper Gets It Half-Right

Well, it has to be admitted: when it comes to changing government, Stephen Harper has come up with something pretty radical. This Accountability Act has got some legs -- but by itself, it won't be enough to get him to 24 Sussex.

Let's look at some of the proposals Harper makes:

1. Banning corporate and union donations to political parties, while limiting personal donations to $1,000. As Angry says, this is pretty much a partisan move aimed at the Liberals and NDP, since they raise the majority of their funds through corporate and union donations. It also has the effect of cutting off a lobbying channel for interest groups, through targeted political funding.

2. Ban cash donations to political parties or candidates of more than $20. This one's a bit trickier. I think the idea is that Harper wants a paper trail for political party donations, either by cheque or credit. At the same time, the $20 limit keeps the door open for fundraising events. Like summer barbecues.

3. Extend to ten years the period for which Elections Act violations can be investigated and prosecuted. Frankly, I don't see this one flying. It would, in effect, give a future Tory government carte blanche to go after the Liberals for all of their sins -- which would be distracting from their contemporary mandate, and also strike some people as overly vindictive.

4. Extend to five years the period for which ministers, ministerial staffers, and senior public servants cannot lobby government. The idea being that by the time five years rolls around all the contacts these ex-politicos had accumulated would be useless. Again, this strikes me as somewhat vindictive. However, a debate on this measure would be useful in that it opens the door for questions on how, exactly, influence should be wielded.

5. Create an independent Parliamentary Budget Office to provide objective analysis directly to Parliament about the state of the nation’s finances and trends in the national economy. Now this one sounds promising -- sort of a restructuring of the Research Branch of the Library of Parliament. I'd be curious to find out if Harper has the U.S. Congressional Budget Office in mind as a model. They do some pretty good work -- at a cost of $34 million a year. Can Parliament afford that kind of research operation?

It's also interesting to note that, in his proposals for auditing, Harper doesn't talk about the hiring of new auditors. It's possible that he intends to follow through with Treasury Board's plan to hire more, but I'm not going to second-guess him.

I say that Harper gets it half-right because he's tackled one-half of the government equation: political direction. It's a radical re-think because it aims at fundamentally changing the culture of political influence that grew up in the past 20 years. There's just enough imagination in its assumptions to make it a strong plank in the Tory campaign platform.

The other half, however, is the one he has to change, if he wants more than one term in office: the public service culture that sprang up in the Trudeau years and that was nurtured during the Chrétien era. The complicated bidding processes, the bureaucracy that swallows funding meant to be delivered to an end-user. A public service used to the Liberal idea of managerial direction may not necessarily be flexible enough to accommodate a Conservative change in attitude. And unless he comes up with a way to deal with it, it's this second half that will be Harper's undoing.

UPDATE (15h37): I may have left the impression, based on my critique, that I don't support these elements. Actually, I think these are very good ideas. But part of my job as The Phantom Observer is to find avenues of criticism for Tory policy. And you can bet that the Liberals, given a chance, will criticize these proposals along the very lines I've mentioned.