“Speaking truth to power … when power isn’t listening” (iPolitics)


As he testified in court last week, [Stephen Harper’s former legal counsel, Benjamin] Perrin was ‘immediately taken aback at the prime minister’s decision that if you simply own $4,000 of property that made you a resident.’

‘Both legally and practically,’ Perrin continued, ‘it seems untenable. I would not be able to consider myself a resident of Nunavut, having never visited there, simply by having $4,000 of real property.’

Perrin tried to object to his boss’s wobbly legal theory, but his carefully considered arguments soon ended up where all advice goes when it counters Harper’s will: the shredder. In the Harper PMO, the prime minister’s version of reality is the only one that matters. ‘The office obviously acts on the direction of the prime minister so his written word stands,’ Perrin testified. End of discussion.

Again and again, we’ve seen Harper personally determine government policy on his own, largely ignoring the views of experts — and certainly passing over any mumbled objections from his petrified cabinet ministers and shell-shocked caucus members.

Government is a complex beast. Great leaders surround themselves with smart people so that they can always get the best advice. Harper’s style is to surround himself largely with non-entities — people with thin resumes who know better than to question the boss’s expertise on every subject under the sun — and ignore the genuine experts.

I can still remember bumping into Munir Sheikh, the head of Statistics Canada, in early 2010 when I was working at the Department of Finance. ‘The prime minister wants to cancel the mandatory long-form census!’ an alarmed Sheikh told me. Note that he didn’t say that the minister responsible for StatsCan, Tony Clement, was considering an end to the long-form census, or that an advisory group had studied the issue and come up with a policy suggestion.

No. Stephen Harper had decreed from on high that the long-form census would be dropped, for purely ideological reasons.

Academics, social and business groups and the provinces mounted a combined effort to reverse the decision, arguing that a voluntary survey would seriously damage the quality of data available. But the boss had spoken. By July of 2010, Sheikh had resigned.

The idea of speaking truth to power will keep cropping up in university seminars — but it’s dead in official Ottawa. Bureaucrats have largely given up on trying. It’s a career-killer, for one thing. The way to get ahead in the Harper-era public service is to shut up and take orders — no matter how stupid they are.

Full column here