Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Org Charts and Green Politics

Even rumor of another executive order from the White House raises $millions in small donations from paranoids on the American right. In Canada, the paranoids are unarmed, still believe in positive government, and are highly aroused by new org charts.

Former public servant and Green Party leader Elizabeth May put on a vivid display of this Canadian variety this past Tuesday.

In the Globe and Mail, over the alarming headline “Environment department on chopping block, May says,” Gloria Galloway reports:

“Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says senior sources who would lose their jobs if they went public have told her that the Conservative government is planning to eliminate the federal environment department and merge any remaining functions with Natural Resources Canada. The government categorically denied the suggestion.”

Outside the House of Commons, May repeated that she believed that the threat was “credible” and emphasized that she’d been warned about the approaching elimination of Canada’s Ministry of Environment by “multiple and well-connected sources.”

In Question Period, Stephen Harper only suggested that she was misinformed. The cold bastard didn’t bother to get personal or complain that May had lost her avowed attachment to "evidence-based" politics.

Elizabeth May and certainly Ms. Galloway should know that farfetched rumors move in packs, at lightning speed, amongst the well connected. It’s court courtesy.

Even imagining that Harper’s government would want to strip this highly educated and self-consciously green country of its flagship environment ministry; even if he thought he could sell streamlining staff overheads by creating, say, one Ministry of Sustainable Developmentand wanted to spend time and political capital tryingthe argument that Harper’s new organization would crush the greens is nonsense.

Let’s pretend they merge, and then let the numbers help us figure out who is the big fish and who’d be eaten:

According to Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, the brutish Ministry of Natural Resources has 5,520 full-time employees while the fair maiden Ministry of Environment has 5,774. Those are the numbers for fiscal year 2012-2013after 7 years of budget-making by Harper and his bean counters.

This is surely, a pretty "even Stephen" proposition that, on the face of it, couldn’t swallow up the bureaucratic culture or clout of either former ministry.

Further, a merger wouldn’t make it any easier for an incompetent government to escape the wrath of environmentalists or energy interests.

Conflicts between professionals and energy and environment priorities would carry on. Complex and contentious decision-making would continue to frustrate the Prime Minister and provide stories and great leaks to good journalists.

The change would primarily be felt internally. Cabinet meetings would feel smaller, and one less minister would be fighting in front of the Prime Minister. The merged bureaucracy would reach more compromises within the bureaucracy, without burdening the Cabinet with their differences. Briefing books, policy papers, planning meeting, briefings with the minister all would be coordinated to encourage agreement, order, and civility. Where officials couldn’t agree, one side would usually stand down and let the other "own" the file.

The desire to get to peaceful decisions, with less fighting at the top, does lead premiers and prime ministers to try bureaucratic mergers. Possibly, Elizabeth May picked up on that sentimentand simply couldn’t resist assigning pitch-black motives to Stephen Harper.

In pursuit of more rational and smoother decision-making, energy and environment ministries have been merged before. In fact, May’s most experienced fellow opposition leader, former Ontario Premier Bob Rae, did just that when he merged the Ontario ministries of Energy and Environment in the early 90s.

(Full disclosure: I was one of the Assistant Deputy Ministers assigned to make it work. The environment side of the new ministry was about 10 times bigger than the energy side. But because of the demands of politics, the legislature, the press, stakeholders, and unscheduled economic and environmental problems, the minister and the Rae Government had to give each side roughly equal time.)


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