An editorial in today’s Edmonton Journal (November 26th: Decisions had to be made), is a disappointment, not only for the message but for what it says about the paper’s understanding of democracy.
“The fact is that no governing party in a parliamentary democracy anywhere can tolerate such violations of party discipline (Raj Sherman’s repeated criticism of his government) — discipline that’s the very cornerstone of delivering the government voters hired it to provide.” (editorial)
Such a statement would surprise most of the denizens of Westminster (U.K., the Mother of Parliaments), where it is not unusual for 20 -100 members of the Government caucus to vote against a Government measure, and where some M.P.s continue to be a thorn in the side of their Leader (Conservative, Labour, or Liberal Democratic) for years, without being expelled from their Party. At meetings of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (and I have attended such meetings) Parliamentarians from the U.K., from India, from Australia and from New Zealand are astonished at the stringent discipline that is a matter of course in the Canadian Parliament and all provincial legislatures.
The editorial needs to be challenged on a number of grounds.
Perhaps the first question we might ask is whether the current Government is delivering the government voters hired it to provide. There is a good argument to be made that Dr. Sherman’s positions are closer to what voters expected than is the position of the Government.
“…a premier’s power does not flow directly from the electorate, but rather from his ability to command a majority of MLAs. Who wants to see a precedent set in which MLAs can prevent a duly elected government from making tough decisions?” (editorial)
The writer seems to be clearly in the camp that favours elected dictatorships and making “tough decisions”, even if they are stupid, or immoral, or contrary to what voters understood the political bargain to be. Apparently, it is not for elected representatives of the people to constrain the Cabinet and the Premier (as happens in the U.K. and other places): it is for the Premier to constrain the Cabinet and the other elected representatives.
Apparently, Dr. Sherman should be honoured and then sacrificed. No. That needn’t be the case. It shouldn’t be the case.
Perhaps in Alberta we can come to the point that a strong Premier’s power doesn’t flow from his ability to “command” (coerce, intimidate) a majority of M.L.A.s. Perhaps we can imagine a government that is powerful because it is influential, and influential because it is respected, and respected because it is open, inclusive and collaborative, and transparent; a government that acts on the best evidence possible when there is evidence and that treads lightly into the unknown when thoughtful, experienced people hold diverse views.
The editorial also sides with the Government on the issue of Ministerial direction to the AHS (Alberta Health Services) Board that it should fire the C.E.O., Dr. Stephen Duckett. The Government – and the Edmonton Journal – can’t have it both ways. If the Government is responsible for public policy as it relates to health care, and for “the provision of health care” (the Edmonton Journal), then the Government was negligent or duplicitous in creating the AHS Board in the first place, ostensibly to operate at arm’s length.
When it comes to the firing of Dr. Duckett, neither the Minister nor the Chairman of the AHS Board has said that Dr. Duckett was fired for failing to implement Government policy, nor was he fired because Government policy has changed dramatically and he is no longer the right person for the job. In fact, the Government is careful to insist that the policies put in place two years ago, when Ron Liepert was Minister, remain in place. The current Minister is only tweaking them to make them better, we are told.
So Dr. Duckett was fired because he is brusque, had a bad day, and preferred eating a cookie to dealing with reporters. Actually, he was fired because he was trying to do what this Government wants all its senior public servants to do – cover for the politicians. In years gone by, senior public servants like Dr. Duckett would have been told to keep themselves out of the media. In years gone by, the media wouldn’t have been looking for Dr. Duckett on a Friday afternoon: the media would have been looking for comments from the Minister. In years gone by, if the media had come across Dr. Duckett and asked for a comment, his reply would have been something like this: “You know I can’t comment about matters of public policy or matters that are politically sensitive. Talk to the Minister.”
The reality is that, today, if a senior public servant sends reporters to the Minister that public servant is breaching the wall Ministers want to stay safely inside. Where 30 years ago the public servant would have been criticized for talking to the media, today the public servant would be censured for failing to take the arrow for the politicians. Dr. Duckett took the arrow for the politicians and for the AHS Board.
For that reason, the firing is a good thing, although it has happened for trivial reasons that hide an abdication of accountability. As C.E.O., Dr. Duckett had made himself the willing servant of a fatally flawed political outlook and practice. His work was more symptom than cause, and his departure does not mean the end of the flawed politics and practices. But the Potemkin’s Village has been exposed, and it is going to be discarded as a result of this and related incidents.
The real problem on Friday afternoon was not the cookie, or the brusque C.E.O. or the clamoring media. It was the culture that has us (and our media surrogates) asking questions of public servants that should be asked of politicians.
Why are the politicians not accountable?