Monday, February 9, 2009

Politics: Behind Canadian Closed Doors

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I am often accused of only criticizing things in the United States, and not taking on the problems that exist in Canada, that I am somehow so biased in favor of Canada that I can't see anything wrong here. I actually have plenty to say about things that need to be improved here, and I will start today by pointing out that way too many political decisions are made behind closed doors here.

The issue became a bit more apparent than usual at the Metrolinx open house that I attended last week. Sure, it bothered me that the involvement of a private company in the Air Rail Link was hidden in that open house, but even more disturbing was how that came to be in the first place. The original "Blue 22" proposals of the 1990's, of which the Air Rail Link is a direct descendant even if the name has changed, apparently came from lobbying by SNC-Lavalin of the provincial government--not any sort of organic, grass-roots desire for an Express service to the airport. In fact, everything I've read indicates that the idea of building an Eglinton subway all the way out to the airport was greatly favored by the general public at the time, and some have accused the provincial government of scuttling the Eglinton subway specifically to make sure that couldn't happen. (In this view of history, Mel Lastman was a simply an opportunist in getting a subway built along Sheppard Avenue after Eglinton construction was stopped.)

But, it's not just transportation decisions that take place behind the scenes. Look at the anointment of Michael Ignatieff as leader of the Liberal Party. That process wasn't even transparent to members of the party, who watched as the other candidates quietly stepped aside "for the good of the party and the good of the nation." Perhaps in the circumstances it was indeed at least good for the Liberal Party, but as Canadians wring their hands about why there is no Barack Obama in Canada, they need to look no further than these kind of back-room deals that favor party elites and make it hard for any organic movement to take hold. I'm not sure Canadians want potential leaders going door to door in (say) Regina and Whitehorse the way American politicians campaign early in Iowa and New Hampshire, but there are plenty of intermediate solutions that would allow for the garnering of grass-roots support and allow it to be tallied--and the parties are in direct control of these rules so they have only themselves to blame.

Then, there's the tradition of keeping budgets secret until they are presented to parliament. Sure, there's plenty of opportunity for the opposition to rip apart the budget after it is presented, but this tradition just reeks of secretive back-room deals in the development of the budget--and the opposition really can't stop a bad budget in a majority parliament. It doesn't help when the current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has a reputation of making all the decisions himself and not even listening to his own party members--witness the contradictions this week in statements by Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. It's hard to trust the budgeting process in these circumstances.

The campaign finance reforms of recent decades have undoubtedly helped, and Canadian government is undoubtedly less secretive than when I was born, but it wasn't that long ago that the Sponsorship Scandal occurred. Canada still has a long way to go in having a truly open and accountable government--it would seem that only the tradition of "good government" and the willingness of the citizenry to punish parties that have misbehaved have made the system more functional overall than that of its neighbor to the south.

1 comment:

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