What happens when you stop listening

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Spend enough time on top, and you forget how to be anything but on top. And when you do, you also forget critical skills.

That's an interesting argument, one that came from former Reform Party leader Preston Manning in The Globe and Mail earlier this week.

Lord knows, I can't be accused of agreeing with Preston Manning on a lot, but I agree with him on this.

Here's a snippet: "When you're the governing party, especially for a long time, you begin to rely more and more on the civil service and taxpayer dollars for everything - including the key elements required to keep your party vigorous, strong and relevant.

"Does your party need intellectual capital - a steady stream of policy analysis and ideas? As the governing party, you can always expropriate some of it from your political opponents. But the longer you are in office, the more likely you are to get an increasing proportion of your intellectual capital from the civil service or by the use of taxpayer dollars to fund research projects and policy studies on any subject."

Essentially, Manning argues that parties get weakened by governing - they end up letting their other sources of ideas and information atrophy. Manning was arguing that was essentially what happened to the federal Liberals: they became critically unprepared for anything except the spoils of power.

Applicable theory

It's an argument that you can make about any long-in-the-tooth administration, though.

Consider this snippet of legislative logic from Premier Kathy Dunderdale, she of the "there's-no-need-to-open-the-House-of-Assembly-because-there's-nothing-to-do" fame. Her government is now in a big rush to get a debate in the House on the Muskrat Falls project - in such a rush that the government doesn't even want the Public Utilities Board to do a complete review of the project anymore. And there will be plenty of time to have the House debate, even though there don't seem to be any plans to actually have time dedicated strictly for Muskrat Falls.

Instead, to hear the government talk about it, the opposition can make their points during formal, time-set debates like the debate on the throne speech or the budget.

Here's why, in Dunderdale's own words: "Because the budget is a money bill, you can discuss anything under the sun," she told reporters.

In that scenario, the budget debate is reduced to a given - just a block of time to talk about anything - and to a certain degree, the budget is a given, at least as far as that it's a given that the budget will be passed by Dunderdale's government.

But the interesting thing you can parse from her statement is that, as far as she's concerned, it's already a given that the budget is the absolute best it can be - because, as it turns out, it doesn't matter what issues the opposition raises about the budget. It doesn't matter what the opposition raises at all.

It doesn't matter what other opponents say either, even about Muskrat Falls: any required debate can be shoehorned into the regular process of the House, during particular debates when no government minister is required to even mention Muskrat Falls, and will likely address not one single concern.

In that scenario, the whole need to rush the PUB's work to get to the debate on the project in the House is merely a Trojan horse.

Essentially, "You people do your blah-blahs, and we'll just go ahead and do what we want to do anyway."

Your input doesn't matter to us

So Preston Manning has a point: eventually, long-term governments rely on their internal sounding boards and discredit any voice from outside.

Here he is again: "Our advice to our political friends? Build and maintain your 'democratic political infrastructure' - the intellectual capital generators for politicians, the training programs for political activists, and the political communications vehicles - when in opposition but continue to build and maintain it, outside of the civil service and through private donations, even after becoming the governing party.

"To fail to do so is to court eventual political collapse and impotence from which it may take years, even decades, to recover - witness the current state of the federal Liberals."

And what does that look like here? Well, you could say we're precisely in midstream, with a government accustomed to power, completely unfamiliar with what it would be like to have the feel of an opposition seat under its collective backside, and a government on the verge of making a decision on one of the largest public construction projects in the province's history - a decision it's already so convinced it is right about that it can't even be bothered to wait for a full independent examination of the plan.

Governments sometimes forget that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. Sometimes they forget that at our peril, as well.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Reform Party, Globe and Mail, Public Utilities Board House on the Muskrat Falls The Telegram

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  • Carl
    January 14, 2012 - 23:22

    Preston Manning is perhaps the most intelligent, gentlemanly and completely misjudged Canadian statesman in my lifetime. Too bad the Liberals completely misrepresented him and assassinated his character. Sadly, he was too much of a gentleman, and far too intelligent, to succeed in modern Canadian politics.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    January 14, 2012 - 12:45

    The Harris Centre says that their upcoming Muskrat Falls event is 'non-partisan'. +++++ Yet the Harris Centre begins its advertisement for this event (as published in today's Telegram) by saying that there is indeed a need for more power to meet future expected growth!!! ++++ But isn't that one of the key questions that this event is supposed to help us answer?. +++++ Even the independent federal/provincial Review Panel said that the need for more power has not been demonstrated. +++++++ How then can the Harris Centre say that this presentation is "non-partisan", when its own advertisement presupposes/ prejudges Dr. Locke's analysis and conclusions? ++++++ In any event - how "non-partisan" is this presentation when it is co-sponsored by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council --- a council that includes three provinces that stand to benefit (or potentially benefit) substantially if this proposed project is sanctioned?