Strong Leadership from the PMO

I have spent a lot of time in discussions with an interesting and cordial Liberal Party supporter (possibly also a member but I’m not sure as I never asked her.) These chats happen over on Twitter, where she goes by the username @libartsandminds. Obviously, when dealing with incorrect ideology, we don’t agree on much, and occasionally it gets heated, especially when trash-talking starts.

However, unlike a certain other individual, (who is clearly suffering from Paranoid Twizophrenia) – a term I hope to define more fully in the next few days) @libartsandminds is intelligent and articulate, and does not attempt to destroy a person’s character.

One of the main criticisms of Harper is how he has centralized power in the PMO, and how everything the government does comes as a directive from the PMO.

Uh, that’s kinda the way things work on Parliament Hill, when things are working as they should.

Government can’t be a committee.

The Prime Minister is just that – Prime. Minister. His (or her) job is the head of government. The CEO of the nation. The CEO is the manager of managers, and the central focus for the organization. This is the person who sets the policy and direction for the organization as a whole. The officers of an organization, (or Cabinet in the case if government) are the people who run the various aspects of the organization. (Finance, External Affairs, Natural Resources, etc) and are accountable to the board of directors (the House of Commons).

The shareholders (ie Canadian citizenry) elect the Board of Directors (House of Commons) which then, through the process of holding the Confidence of the House, their CEO (Prime Minister) who then appoints the Officers (Cabinet).

For an organization to be running smoothly and heading in a specific direction, it is critical for all the various departments to be working together and in synch with each other. That’s the Prime Minister’s job. As such, the Prime Minister has to be the focal point and power must be held within the PMO. Otherwise, we’d have chaos.

Agree or disagree with the direction the government is going – that’s what freedom of thought, speech, assembly, ideology are all about, but at the same time, it is critical that one understands how, exactly, things work in Ottawa from an organizational standpoint.

That is not to say @libartsandminds (or anyone else) doesn’t understand this, but I really don’t think such a criticism is valid, especially given the catastrophic governance style of Chretien, (vindictive and secretive) and worse, the social engineering of the Worst Prime Minister in Canadian History, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

About Steven Britton

Steve is a freelance programmer, partial billionaire, dad, Recovering Atheist, Conservative, and occasionally prolific blogger.
  • It’s pretty good to be able to reply in more than 140 characters. 😉

    I know you’re a Conservative, so you really believe in the Authority Model that George Lakoff describes in great detail in his book Moral Politics, but if you put aside Ideology for a moment, I’ll explain why you’re wrong.

    Essentially what you’re saying is that for the organization (Canada) to function effectively, we need to have one leader (Harper) who has near-total control.

    Think about it in a different context to see if it really makes sense: if Ignatieff were elected PM, would you still say that since he was elected, he should have near-total control because he is the leader, or would you question his decisions and want him to listen to others? How about if Jack Layton were elected — would you still say we should let him make all the decisions personally? How about “strong leadership” from Hugo Chávez, Hosni Mubarak, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Than Shwe, or even Saddam Hussein? They are all certainly “strong leaders” and yet I’ll bet you don’t like them or support their decisions. How about Kim Jong Il? He is a “strong leader”, but he makes awful decisions.

    When you argue for one leader with near-total control, you’re arguing for something like Monarchy or Dictatorship. It works okay if the leader makes good decisions, but it’s a failure if the leader does not make good decisions. The key is whether good decisions or bad decisions are made.

    What if a committee made a good decision — would that decision be invalid because it was made by a group of people rather than a strong leader? What if a group of people you don’t even like made a good decision?

    I’m not really concerned that Harper is such a control-freak and in fact, I consider that whole argument to be a distraction. What really worries me is that he makes bad decisions.

    There are different ways to measure whether a decision is good or bad. One method is to use your gut instinct. For example, I might be feeling really hungry today and decide to have a burger and fries instead of pasta or a salad. That’s probably a good decision — it’s certainly worked all the other times. Now consider the question of spending $18 Billion dollars of Canadian taxpayer’s money on new fighter jets. Our gut instinct tells us we need to “defend our airspace” and we can imagine a Russian jet flying over Canada’s North and one of our shiny new fighter jets intercepting and chasing the Russian away, so that seems like a good idea.

    Another way to make decisions is roughly the scientific method of hypotheses-testing-measurement-decision. Using this model, I might google how many calories a person of my size should eat a day and pick food with that amount of calories. I’d probably end up with something like a burger and fries, so it’s silly to go to all that trouble to make the decision. However before spending $18 Billion dollars, we really should take the decision seriously. We need to know the number of times our current jets are scrambled to intercept Russians. We need to consider whether an expensive, short-range stealth fighter is really appropriate for such interception missions, or if there are less-expensive and/or more effective alternatives. We should consider whether we can purchase dual-use planes that could be effective for search-and-rescue as well as interception.

    If fancy fighter-jets give you military gadget-envy and you think we should buy them at any cost regardless of their utility, consider another example: suppose someone you (or I) care about has a medical issue which requires antibiotics. Should the doctor a) make a gut instinct decision about which medicine to prescribe and how much or b) make a decision based on checking a medical text for the most effective medicine and the correct dosage based on the person’s size/age/etc? If it’s a fairly common ailment or the doctor in question has experience, he or she may simply know the correct medicine and dosage, but if they are unfamiliar or there are potential allergies or side-effects, then we’d prefer the doctor check with a colleague or in a book.

    Gut instinct is a reasonable way to make simple decisions or decisions we have experience with, but for complex or unfamiliar issues it doesn’t really work because people are mentally unable to conceptualize the entire problem and the implications of their solution. Complex questions require real evidence about the effectiveness of the proposed solution.

    Stephen Harper’s preferred decision-making process is to check if the decision aligns with his political ideology. This is disturbing because I know he is unable to conceptualize the impact of his decisions and because he ignores real, factual evidence. Factual evidence should be a requirement for any substantial political decision. In theory, ideology is the same as reality, but in reality ideology is just a theory.

    This is why Harper’s autocratic style is a problem for some people — he isn’t willing to listen to people who present evidence against his decisions. If he were willing to listen to advice from others, he might not make such bad decisions.

    • First, I don’t believe in the Authority model. I’m a libertarian, which means that, fundamentally, I follow the adage, “No government is good government.”

      That said, clearly that’s an unattainable ideal, just like Karl Marx’s “Utopia.” However, I am a fan of minimalist government – government where necessary, but as little as possible.

      What I have said, contrary to what you describe, is that for an organization to function well, it needs a person to set and guide the direction if the organization. That is what Harper is doing. He is very focused in where he wants to take the country, and has been very clear with the population in telling us where he’s going to go. He selects his Cabinet based on that intent, and makes sure that his Ministers are in tune and able to take their various departments where they need to go. It is then up to that Minister to get the job done, managing the department effectively while taking it where it needs to go.

      Agree or disagree with where Harper is taking the country is one thing, but you can not fault him for how he’s going about doing it.

      You mention how I would feel if Ignatieff, or worse, one of the brutal dictators you list above, were in control. The difference is clear – with the exception of Ignatieff, none of the above names are accountable to their form of Parliament, or, ultimately, their population at large. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet are accountable first to (a) Parliament – who can turf them out of Government through a motion of no-confidence, and then (b) the population at large who can turf them out of Parliament. So no, I’m not arguing in favour of a dictatorship or monarchy at all; quite the contrary: I’m actually arguing in favour if more independence and freedom for our elected MP’s. Eliminate whipped voting, eliminate all confidence measures (except maybe the budget.)

      Nor am I arguing against committees. I stated that a country cannot be governed by committee. Governance by committee implies rule by consensus; which doesn’t work very well. In a way, Cabinet is a form of committee, and a good Prime Minister will choose Cabinet Ministers who aren’t “yes men.” By that, I mean a good leader surrounds himself with people who aren’t afraid to tell the leader when they think the leader is making a mistake. So, around the cabinet table, the Prime Minister outlines what his vision is, and then listens, with an open mind, to what his Ministers have to say. Once the discussion is over, the Prime Minister then says, “okay, here is what we are doing…” and then the Ministers either get the job done, or, if they can or will not carry the decision out, they resign.

      Harper is decisive. He makes a decision and then goes with it. That probably comes across as autocratic, but in reality, it’s simply decisiveness. “This is what we are doing. Get it done. Next.”

      I won’t comment on your fighter jet example, because agreement or disagreement with actual decisions is always a matter of debate. You don’t think the figure jets were a good decision. I do. That’s a debate for another time; however sure ideology will guide decision making. That goes without saying, but what I don’t accept is that Harper is uninformed of the specifics before he makes a decision. Given his ability at strategy and tactics, I expect the contrary is true – he knows far more about things than we do. I believe he is usually thinking three or four moves ahead of everyone else.

      Second to that same point, I don’t think he’s closed to contrary evidence. I think he chooses his advisors and inner circle very carefully, and likely, like any good leader, he chooses people who know more than be does. For example, I might rely on a nutritionist or a dietician to help me choose a healthy menu for my household. Or a financial advisor to help me plan for my retirement. I don’t pretend to know more than those people, and I listen carefully to the advice they give to me. The same likely applies to Harper. He has chosen his advisors based on their qualifications, and he listens to them. If Ignatieff provides Harper with contrary evidence, it is likely (a) to be filtered through Ignatieff’s ideology, and (b) less reliable than the evidence provided by someone well-versed in the field appropriate to the decision being made. Consider: you provide me advice on how to construct a good photograph. Then, as I’m getting ready to take one, Hedy Fry shows up and tries to tell me to do the exact opposite of what you told me to do. What am I going to do? I’m going to tell Hedy Fry to go look for burning crosses in Prince George and let me take my damn photograph the way you told me to do it!

  • I still think you’re more authoritarian than you believe, based on some comments you’ve made, the fact that it’s the primary lesson of the bible (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”, etc), and because Lakoff describes how Libertarianism is a variant of classical Conservatism, with the same core beliefs. I could be wrong, so I’m not going to really argue it. Even if I could prove it to you, it wouldn’t really change anything.

    What I do want to argue (in the sense of trying to prove a point rather than being argumentative) relates to this statement that you made: “I won’t comment on your fighter jet example, because agreement or disagreement with actual decisions is always a matter of debate.”

    I agree that actual decisions are a matter of debate, but I think that such debates are how you learn if your mental model of the world works in practice. In order to properly argue about the fighter jets we’d need to know the numbers that I mentioned before. We don’t, so we can’t really discuss it properly. That’s why I included the medical example too. If you don’t argue something specific, there’s no way to prove it right, and no way to prove it wrong. That’s why I don’t want to argue generalities or ideology.

    You suggest that Harper seeks advice from experts, and he must indeed have some experts, but Tony Clement (no doubt on Harper’s advice) not only ignored the expert advice of the former head of Stats Can, Clement even lied about what advice he was provided. They ignored that advice because it did not fit with their ideological agenda.

    It doesn’t matter if Harper is decisive when he’s making the wrong decisions. The brutal dictators I mentioned are likely quite decisive too, but that doesn’t mean they make good decisions.

    • Submitting myself to God’s authority doesn’t imply that I (a) want to force other people to do the same (I do suggest it, though) or (b) believe government should authoritatively legislate morality. For example, if two men and two women want to move in together and swap sexual partners every night, I don’t agree with it, but I’m not the one in that arrangement, so it really doesn’t affect me. So no, I am not authoritarian.

      As for the fighter jets, I can provide reasons why it was a good decision, you can provide reasons why it wasn’t. We could go at it for days, and nothing would come of it. That’s the point. Examples are fine, but I don’t want to sidetrack the conversation away from the central theme of the blog post: that Harper’s leadership style is precisely the way our system is designed to work.

      Now you raise an interesting point with the census. It’s likely that Harper mentioned to Clement that the 2011 census was coming up, and, remembering the issues that came up out of the last one, they should look at options and ideas about the long form. Clement probably researched the history, looked at the laws, asked for some expert advice, and made a decision based on that advice, and yes, ideology probably played a role in the decision.

      That ideology being that the government has no right to demand people provide such intimite information about themselves under threat of prison.

      Clement probably approached Harper with his decision and they likely discussed the pros and cons of the change, and it’s likely that Harper said, “okay. Make it happen.”

      Once Harper has made a decision, it’s done. He doesn’t dither, or look back, he moves on to the next item, and accepts the consequences of the decision he has made in the past. Clement now has to make it happen, and, for better or worse, that’s what is going to happen. Again, you and I don’t agree on the quality of the decision, but for the purposes of ts discussion, it’s unimportant.

      As for the brutal dictators you mentioned, I’m not disagreeing that they are (or were) likely quite decisive. I’m saying they had absolute power. Harper does not, as he’s held in check by the House of Commons and, ultimately, the electorate.

  • “I don’t agree with it, but I’m not the one in that arrangement, so it really doesn’t affect me. So no, I am not authoritarian.”

    I’m surprised you say that because usually Conservative people do want to control what other people do in the privacy of their own homes. I assumed you’d think the same, but I was wrong to assume in this case. I’ll try to ask for your take on such things before assuming.

    “That ideology being that the government has no right to demand people provide such intimite information about themselves under threat of prison.”

    How many people were ever sent to prison? None. I provide much more personal information in my income tax return, so are they going to abolish that too? When we go through airport scanners we have to give up our bottles of water and endure invasive examination. No, the government is not concerned with privacy. People willingly post all sorts of private information about themselves on Facebook and other social sites, proving that the vast majority of the public is not greatly concerned about privacy. How many people actually complained about the census being invasive? The reason you provide is not the real reason for destroying the census.

    If you still think it might be the real reason, consider this. The government still wants to send out the same census form, in fact they want to send it to more households, but they want to make it optional to answer. If they were really concerned about privacy, they wouldn’t send the census at all. If they’re concerned about the threat of prison, well, nobody ever actually went to prison, so that’s not a real concern. The privacy angle does not hold any water, and thus the real reason is something else that the government is not willing to tell us.