Thursday, December 27, 2007

On Accountability

Robopundit writes some good stuff about something that has been bothering me lately. He is worried about the decline in the idea that our elected representatives are responsible for making policy, preferring instead to let bureaucrats and "special panels" do the heavy lifting.
Once a parliamentary principle, the bargain that allows mandarins to speak truth to power from the shadows while ministers stand in the spotlight is so badly broken that few noticed when Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day left it to the border agency's Alain Jolicoeur to answer awkward questions about the how and why of the Vancouver airport Taser horror.

Sadly, Day's sudden modesty isn't an anomaly. Despite at least partly winning the last election on the strength of their accountability promise, Conservatives are accelerating the Ottawa tactic of passing the buck so often to so many people that where it stops is a mystery. More bureaucrats are appearing in public and the Prime Minister is making a habit of appointing panels answerable only to him to consider public policy issues that were once the purview of those we elect.

Short term, those methods work too well. Politicians can take credit and then bob and weave around public opprobrium while others carry the can.

Long term is entirely different. As Hillier is demonstrating to the Prime Minister's discomfort, the clout that comes with public profile is easy to loan, difficult to recover. Once established as marquee players, bureaucrats will bridle at recasting as docile supporting actors. With their own agendas to protect and careers to advance, they are sure to ad lib and their lines won't always please politicians.
I would extend this criticism to include "citizens' assemblies". As we witnessed in Ontario's electoral reform fiasco, the politicians love citizens' assemblies because they remove responsibility from their collective shoulders. Politicians can claim neutrality over the output of such bodies, thus freeing their proxies in the media and party to criticize (and organize opposition to) the assembly's policy proposals, should they be anathema to the party in power. After all, again as we saw in Ontario, the citizens' assembly has no infrastructure to use to refute the criticisms leveled at their proposals. They are sitting ducks, waiting for their inevitable clubbing.

The fact is, we have an extant "citizens' assembly". It is called a parliament. We citizens elect the members to that citizens' assembly and it is, at least theoretically, responsible to us. It should be up to our elected representatives to propose and adopt policy. Sideshows like citizens' assemblies just serve to muddy the waters over responsible government. Politicians need to step up and say "This is our policy. Judge us on it and no one else". In other words, we need politicians with spines.
Recommend this Post


  1. Funnily enough, in terms of modern political/economic thinkers, the modern figure who complained most loudly about the farming out of government to technocrats and unelected 'experts' was Friedrich Hayek. (He saw it as especially anti-democratic and illiberal.)

  2. Interesting. BC's experience with a citizen assembly on electoral reform went differently. But I think that may have been due to the educational funding and assembly funding levels.

    But you make a good point - a clear majority of BCers supported electoral reform, even if we narrowly missed the 60% mark. The BC government could have taken that as a mandate for change even if we didn't meet their arbitrarily high mark, but of course they didn't. It's not in their best interests to do so.