Justin Ling: Can we please just fix a damned problem, for a change?
How can we ask Canadians to put more faith in a system which sees them as rubes? I’m not sure I can think of a problem more acute than this.
By: Justin Ling
If The Line has an editorial position, it is probably thus: Everything is broken.
This newsletter, of course, comes at the idea more earnestly than, say, the leader of the Conservative party. When my friend Matt Gurney advances that proposition, it is a lament. When Pierre Poilievre does: It’s wishful thinking.
While citizens of this country can’t always agree on what, exactly, is busted in our country, or why, or who is responsible — we can all agree, I hope, that things in this country could use a tune-up, at the very least. Canadians, after all, are imbued with a cloying optimism. An insufferable belief that things can be fixed. It’s a good thing.
Lucky for us, we have plenty of words written about how to fix much of what ails us. Because we, as a country, have a compulsive need to inquire about those problems. Our national pastime isn’t hockey, it’s the royal commission.
And we’ve got a government in office that loves to study the nature of the problem. There’s good work, these days, for the special rapporteurs and retired judges amongst us. And if you’re a Canadian that loves a good public consultation, you must be run ragged.
Yet we also have a government in office that has a pathological inability to take advice. And this problem may help explain why it feels like we’re sliding backwards.
“He committed to learning from his tragedy.”
The most extreme example came recently, with the release of the final report of the Mass Casualty Commission. They were tasked with investigating the interlocking series of failures in the RCMP’s response to the mass shooting in Portapique. It is a thorough and damning reporting, despite efforts to defang its powers in the name of being “trauma-informed.”
The RCMP, they wrote, must “adopt a policy of admitting its mistakes, accepting responsibility for them, and ensuring that accountability mechanisms are in place for addressing its errors.” Inquiry after inquiry had identified systemic problems in the RCMP, the Commission wrote, and the RCMP must finally address them or risk further disasters.
RCMP interim Commissioner Mike Duheme shuffled out in front of reporters on March 30, after the report was released, and offered some pablum about doing better. Reporters were confused about why he wasn’t making good on the easiest of all the recommendations. A simple “we made mistakes” would have been a start.
Well, it turns out he hadn’t read the report, despite receiving it more than 24 hours prior. I suppose he was busy.
Last week, I followed up with the RCMP to give them a chance to rectify the situation. Is the RCMP, I asked, “now prepared to respond to that recommendation and admit to the mistakes made during the response to the Portapique mass shooting?”
The RCMP’s response clocked in at 178 words, but it can be summarized by: No.
“The RCMP fully recognizes the importance of reviewing lessons learned and continuing to improve our operations,” a spokesperson wrote. They cited Commissioner Duheme’s disastrous, borderline offensive, press conference as proof of their intent. “He committed to learning from his tragedy and moving forward as a stronger organization.” (Emphasis on their Freudian slip mine.)
The RCMP spokesperson said they had put a team in place, and plans to announce an update on “our progress” in the coming weeks.
Why bother? There would clearly be no consequences if the RCMP just ignored the report entirely. They could fold the report into a navy of origami boats, floating them down the Musquodoboit River. A few days of bad headlines would give way to collective amnesia. Then, in the next commission of inquiry, there will be another recommendation, perhaps even more strongly worded, about how the RCMP needs to face accountability for its incompetence. And the circle of life will continue.
And what of their political minders? I also emailed Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office to ask how they were getting on with holding the RCMP to account for its Jenga tower of systemic problems.
The minister’s director of communication pointed to some fairly meek measures designed to improve the RCMP’s oversight, which is something.
On the question of actually admitting mistakes, the minister is certainly saying what the RCMP won’t: “The only way to restore trust is for the RCMP to admit those mistakes, acknowledge the failures and apologize to those harmed,” Mendocino’s office wrote. They promised that “this government will ensure that happens, so that we can maintain the confidence of Canadians and keep them safe.”
Great. Why hasn’t it happened?
Maybe it, eventually, will. But it has been a month since yet another devastating taxonomy of the RCMP’s fundamental inability to fulfil its mandate, and two years since its institutional incompetence squandered the good work of its officers and let a murderous maniac get away and murder nine more people. And the force still won’t say “we made mistakes.”
The RCMP may, eventually, say those magic words. It might not. Regardless, there will never be consequences.
This should really, really freak us out.
“Too many people don’t understand”
Let’s do a montage of other examples.
When the government tapped an expert panel to study the use of solitary confinement in Canada’s prisons — literally torture — Correctional Services Canada blocked them from doing their job, and the public safety minister ignored their cries for help and then let their contracts lapse. Thanks to some scrutiny, the government renewed the study, then ignored it when the numbers showed they were still torturing people. Oops!
The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians — a body Trudeau created — warned in 2019 that Ottawa wasn’t taking foreign interference seriously, particularly when it came to China. “In short, government responses were piecemeal, responding to specific instances of foreign interference but leaving unaddressed the many other areas where Canadian institutions and fundamental rights and freedoms continue to be undermined by hostile states.” Prescient!
One of the most absurd examples is the sexual misconduct crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces. When Trudeau came into office in 2015, he had an external review on his desk from Marie Deschamps. One good external review deserves another, so the Liberals ordered one from Louise Arbour in 2022. What she found was harrowing: “We have been here before. Little seems to change.” Not only had the government failed to implement the Deschamps report, it was still failing to live up to the recommendations from the 1997 Somalia Inquiry. Fuck!
The most egregious example? Electoral reform. The prime minister swore up and down that, say it with me now, 2015 would be the last election held under the first-past-the-post voting system. He even struck a committee to offer a cross-partisan view on how best to do that. That committee, however, didn’t return with the answer he wanted — a ranked ballot system that would benefit the Liberals. So he blew up the system and hectored all of us for our immature little beliefs.
"We need people who represent broader voices, not narrower interests,” he told the CBC’s Aaron Wherry, with condescension that jumps out of the computer screen and combs your hair. “And I understand people want proportional representation, but too many people don't understand the polarization and the micro issues that come through proportional representation."
Over 60 per cent of the country wants proportional representation. But daddy knows best.
Ostensibly, we will see a public inquiry — maybe even a fabled royal commission — into our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. If history is any indication, this could be a cathartic moment to rectify deep dysfunction in our health-care system and emergency response protocols. It could help us understand better the role of government and the way governments ought to communicate with their citizens.
Look at the investigation into the SARS epidemic. Over 1,200 pages, Commissioner Archie Campbell identified seven systemic problems “that run like steel threads through all of SARS, through every hospital and every government agency.”
Incredibly, the government of the day, and its successor, rushed to address the recommendations in the report — in fact, some measures, like establishing the Public Health Agency of Canada, were taken before the final report was even released.
Over time, those lessons were lost. Stockpiles were depleted, internal processes were abandoned, IT projects were cancelled. We stumbled into the COVID-19 pandemic not much better prepared than we had been in 2003, despite owning a world-class playbook.
The report was as relevant then as it was in 2020 when COVID-19 hit. At one point, Campbell even castigates public health officials for spending too much time vexing over “who is right and who is wrong about airborne transmission,” and failing to appreciate how quickly science can move. “Yesterday’s scientific dogma is today’s discarded fable.” Imagine!
“What we heard”
At the very centre of this tootsie-pop is, surprise, elitism. This Liberal government, armed with its paper-thin mandate, is convinced that they — and only they — are the verifiers of good ideas. And we should be grateful for whatever decision they deign to make.
If they farm out an idea to the public service, and the idea doesn’t come back in the form they envisioned, no matter: Send out the McKinsey signal. For just a few million dollars, their crack team of subject matter non-experts can prepare a PowerPoint presentation laying out the exact policy the political staff wanted in the first place.
The Liberals take a similar approach to consulting with the unwashed masses. When the government consulted the public on their plan to police “online harms,” they published a “what we heard” report that was broadly supportive of their plan.
Can we see the submissions? Journalists and academics asked. No. Came the reply.
So lawyer Michael Geist filed an access to information request for the submissions and, surprise, they were intensely negative.
I’m familiar with this tactic.
When the government consulted on its plans to, supposedly, fix the access to information system, I checked my cynicism and wrote a detailed submission. As did a number of other experts and power users of the system, vestige of a time when Ottawa believed transparency improved decision-making. Those submissions were hotly critical of how this government has weakened and underfunded access to information, and made a list of specific and technical recommendations — many of which overlapped across the many submissions.
Imagine our surprise when the “what we heard” report came out. It had so little bearing on what we said that it is probably better named the “what we wanted to hear” report. And even that meagre whitewash was further sanded down, until a final report was published, committing the government to doing precisely nothing. The system is as good as useless, now.
There is an unbelievable amount of cynicism behind these tactics.
The Liberals have managed to tap into the values of Canadians, and convince them — time and time again — that they are the only thing standing between those values and an illiberal backslide. That is, that a vote for Justin Trudeau is a vote to protect a woman’s right to choose, to take guns off the street, to reduce CO2 emissions, and so on. The Conservatives have been completely incapable of disabusing Canadians of that notion, and I don’t see why the next election will be any different.
It helps that the Liberal Party has a baked-in advantage when it comes to matters of policy. It is, after all, the party of constitutional law, academic rigour, and high-falutin’ eggheadery.
They have also thrown considerable resources into issues management. The Liberals’ communications regime exists to smother every conceivable issue in vague talking points and haughty values statements.
So our experience tells us that only Justin Trudeau is a defender of Canadian values. Our priors tell us that the Liberal party is inclined towards experts and academics. But it’s his propaganda that tells us that he is constantly fielding feedback, and reacting to it.
All the while, things break down.
Deliverology Us From Evil
How can we ask Canadians to put more faith in a system which sees them as rubes?
I’m not sure I can think of a problem more acute than this.
The Liberals failing to follow through on their platform commitments is one thing. After all, election promises have an ephemeral quality. People have revised down their expectations that they are anything more than wishful thinking.
But these are questions that strike to the heart of our state. Can we trust the RCMP to stop a well-armed man on a murderous rampage? Can we trust the Canadian Armed Forces to keep women in their ranks safe from their fellow soldiers? Can our public-health system respond to another viral pandemic? Can our health system respond to anything at all? Can we stop a hostile foreign power from meddling in our domestic affairs?
Can the government listen to the experts? Can it listen to us?
To solve this we need, I guess, deliverology.
The Liberals rode into Ottawa with a promise that every promise, every problem, every solution would be meticulously documented, tracked, measured, audited, published. And then, well, they just gave up.
As their interest in tracking their own success waned, their self-assessment metrics turned to farce. I wrote, way back in 2017, how the Liberals’ self-grading always seems to be rosier than independent analysis of their record. In 2019, Kathryn May surveyed some civil servants about deliverology’s legacy. “Is deliverology still a thing?” one senior bureaucrat shrugged. In 2021, as they were about to blow past their self-imposed deadline on eliminating long-term boil water advisories on First Nations, they just disappeared the infographic that showed the extent of their failure.
Of course deliverology was never, really, a thing. Because this kind of accountability can not come from within. Real scrutiny comes from the outside. Some people are doing their best.
There’s the Polimeter, the erstwhile Trudeau Tracker, which asks citizens to gauge his follow-through on electoral promises. But that cannot keep tabs on the hundreds of calls to action and recommendations that have been issued over the past eight years. (They have kept 37 per cent of their promises and broken 19 per cent, if you’re wondering.)
The Yellowhead Institute has tried to keep track of the calls to justice issued from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As of late 2022, Ottawa has met just 13: “At this rate, it will take 42 years, or until 2065, to complete all the Calls to Action,” they write. The CBC’s own count of the calls to action agrees with the Institute’s assessment, but explains that 31 projects are “underway” while another 31 are just “proposed” — 19 haven’t even been started.
Then, of course, there’s more institution watchdogs like the Auditor General. Take your pick of their assessments of this government: “Incomprehensible failures.” “The list of failures grows longer, yet again.” “We don’t even see that they know how to measure those gaps.”
Unfortunately, if we don’t care about the initial inquiry, why should we care that the government is not responding to their recommendations?
Let me put a fine point on this: If our government is told of systemic and structural problems in our country, and effectively manages to both avoid fixing those problems and escape scrutiny over its inability to do so, we are truly boned as a nation. People will continue losing faith, people will grow skeptical of our state’s ability to mediate problems, and anti-government sentiment will increase. Who can blame them?
If our government is incapable of self-repair, then it cannot survive.
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