Donald Savoie on Governing from the Centre

 There has been a good deal of comment on Stephen Harper’s obsession with command and control, and how the entire government apparatus is controlled in great detail by Harper from his prime ministerial office.

It was against this background that my ears perked up when I heard Donald Savoie interviewed on the CBC a couple of weeks ago. Savoie, as you probably know, was a senior public servant and then for many years a professor at the University of Ottawa. He is now Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton. He was on-air promoting his new book entitled What is Government Good At ? : A Canadian Answer. Amongst other things, this new book deals in considerable detail about the power in Canadian government gravitating inexorably to the office of Prime Minister.


He told an interesting story about his 1999 book entitled Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics. This was written during the tenure of Jean Chretien and six years before Stephen Harper became Prime Minister.  Some time ago Savoie met someone who worked in Harper's PMO. This fellow had a copy of Savoie's 1999 book and he asked Savoie to autograph it. Savoie asked if in his PMO circle many people had read the book. The fellow said "Read it ? We use it as a

manual ! ".   The title of Chapter 4 in Savoie’s 1999 book is: “Primus: There is no longer any Inter or Pares.”

So here we are in 2015 and Savoie’s new book is What is Government Good At ? : A Canadian Answer. Savoie explains “When I published Governing from the Centre in 1999 some questioned whether I had overstated the case. I hear no such voices now and governing from the centre is taken as a given by public servants and many politicians including cabinet ministers.”  “All political and policy roads lead to the prime minister’s office. Governing from the centre is now firmly entrenched, and it is how things work in Ottawa.”

At this particular time, i.e. before the election, I think it appropriate to focus on the author’s take on the present day context in which all political parties must operate, and why, in the interest of staying in power, they will do little if anything to loosen the centre’s hold on power and control.

Here, in brief, are two telling aspects of the modern day context in which any governing party must function.

Firstly, we now have the internet and the digital world.  News is instantaneously shared by millions. “Politicians and senior public servants are busy managing conflicting goals, in a fast-paced political environment, a 24 hour news media, developments in the social media, constant demands on the expenditure budget, and permanent election campaigns.”  “It is”, in the words of former Prime Minister Chretien, “the survival game played under the glare of light. If you don’t learn that, you’re quickly finished”. Politicians and senior public servants are either good at managing conflicting goals and the blame game, or they do not survive.

“Parliament is no longer the prime theatre where adversarial politics play out. The media have taken on the role. Partisan spin doctors slug it out in the national airwaves for one or two hours every day on News World’s Power and Politics, CTV’s Power Play.”  They also go at it in the weekend on such programs as CTV’s Question Period as well as similar French programs in Quebec.  The  focus is less on policy and programs than it is on personalities and conflict. “Today the search for sleaze, the 15 second clip on the evening news, and the work of spin specialists dominate the work of the House of Commons.”   The blame game is played out for everyone to see on the evening news and political talk shows.

Did you know that In 2013, there were 5,256 active lobbyists in Ottawa, of which 1,861 were in house lobbyists with large corporations and 2,612 were in-house lobbyist with politically oriented organizations. There are some 17 lobbyists in Ottawa for every member of Parliament.  Politicians disregard these groups at their peril.  Learn to accept that to an extent we are in the age of government, not by Parliament, but by powerful well informed elites.

Secondly, the public service has always been considered inefficient by the general public and also by elected politicians. This has led to repeated attempts to make the public service operate more the private sector. It is fascinating to Savoie how many times this misguided remedy has been repeated. We have had  three such public service initiatives in the past 30 years, none of which have had much lasting effect except that they all have given rise to an array of new accountability and transparency requirements.

These days the average public servant has to manage the shop, bearing in mind:

- access-to-information and whistleblowing legislation,

- the Official Languages Act,

- the Office of the Auditor General,

- the Office of the Comptroller General,

- the department’s external audit committee,

- the departmental and central agency evaluation units,

- privacy laws,

- the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,

- Affirmative-action policy requirements,

- the Public Sector Integrity Office,

- departmental values and ethics offices,

- the departmental ombudsman, and last but not least,

- the pressing needs of politicians in the blame avoidance game.

Conclusion: Whoever becomes  prime minister for the next term will govern from the centre. He has no choice. He does, however, have considerable freedom about how he explains it to the average voter.   New PMs could well take lessons from Jean Chretien to whom Jeffery Simpson’s referred as The Friendly Dictator.  “Le ‘tit gar de Shawinigan” had a certain style which somehow made us feel less anguished about the way the game was being played in Ottawa.  It would seem that Stephen Harper’s tendency not to sugar coat things for us has not worked to his advantage.




There is more to this book than a detailed description of the new context and the blame game. There are plenty of interesting stories that will make we old retired public servants say: “Ah yes, I remember that well!”. Read the book.

Tags: Bill Kilfoyle