The Networked Headwaiter -

The Networked Headwaiter

Trudeau meant it as an insult; Paul Martin turned it into his job description; is Iggy bringing it back?


One of the least-encouraging things to come out of the Liberal party’s Canada 150 conference is Michael Ignatieff’s assertion that what is needed is some sort of “new” form of federal leadership. Instead of the old “command and control” model, the federal government should work towards a form of “networked governance”. Or as he wrote in a piece for the Sun, federal leadership should be about “convening”; “Ottawa needs to bring the country together in common purpose, and build networks of responsibilities that are focused on outcomes.”


In his piece on the conference, colleague Geddes poked some fun at this, and suggested that the idea was pretty vacuous. I disagree. The problem with this idea is not that it’s vacuous, it’s that it is all-too-well defined. Call it “convening”, call it “networked leadership”, it was never given a more accurate description than when Pierre Trudeau mocked Joe Clark for acting like a headwaiter to the provinces.

Trudeau meant it as an insult, but Paul Martin turned it into his job description. Remember that awesome meeting he convened when they fixed health care for a generation? Or if that was too long ago, check out how much headway Harper’s network leadership is making in getting us a national securities regulator.

The provinces have their little talking shop, it’s the grandly named and more grandly useless Council of the Federation. The only reason to have a federal government is to have a body that can get things done in the face of objections from provinces and other purported stakeholders. Command and control isn’t a perversion of the federal government’s role, it is its bloody mandate.

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The Networked Headwaiter

  1. Andrew, I've noticed you and other commentators have taken this "convening" ideat to automatically mean convevning and networking with provincial governments. I may have missed it, but did Ignatieff state this explicitly?

    I took it as something completely different but may be wrong.

  2. 'Command and control' isn't the federal mandate according to the constitution. Feds and provs have their own roles and responsibilities. I don't like it, but there you are.

    In any case 'command and control' doesn't work anymore.

    • I don't think the conference was about leadership. I see it as a concentrated session for Ignatieff to gather ideas, have his current ideas confirmed or else exposed as not so good, and for him to then make decisions about how he's going to present his leadership to the Canadian people; once an election is called.

      I would say that it's pretty daunting, for a person who has a conscience as Ignatieff has – to be looking at full responsibility for the direction of the country, when he gets into the PMO. So – he's getting as broad a base of ideas and opinions as he can, from as many people as he possibly can – to build the foundation for HIS platform.

      That's the way I see it now. I cannot see a "network" government working at all. It would be a mess. We have to have leadership in one person, in the Prime Minister; who answers to Parliament when it's necessary, and who argues his (or her haha) ideas in front of Parliament. If he is thinking of a sort of network government; then the Liberals are toast. But – I don't think he is. He's a self confessed "lone wolf"; he has had no problem removing the staff that wasn't up to the job; he's accustomed to working on his own – but he's also accustomed to getting input from a large array of sources.

      I'd say he's going to be focused and definitely a leader when the election is called. Until then – it's a mug's game trying to figure him out. He learned his lesson, he's had his baptism by fire; and I'd say he's crafting policy in the same way that he's crafted his books. I could be wrong – but if he refused a coalition last year, he's not going to be going for "network" leadership this year.

      • Agreed, he refused a coalition when he had the chance to be pole-vaulted into the PMO, so he won't be any headwaiter to the provinces either.

        I don't know why people think networking would be between 2 levels of govt. The conference shows all the other people and fields that have to be taken into account. Demographics, unemployment, GW, foreign policy all matter in the governing of a nation.

  3. Potter 2011!!!!!

  4. Or a seminar leader to the provinces.

  5. Maybe it's part of a trend — or a global conspiracy! lol. I received a book as a gift for either my birthday or Christmas at least a year ago. It's about "Wikinomics" and the need for social collaboration in today's world. I picked it up for the first time yesterday, began to read it, got really bored really fast, then put it back down.

    I dunno, it's gotta be the latest thing that the world's left-wing is trying to force down our throats! lol

    Oh, and when they talk about collaboration, I wonder if it means that a select group of people should cook the books on global warming, then send it out to the rest of the world. Just kidding, lefties!

    • Yes, consultation, collaboration, consensus, all a global leftie plot.

      Much easier to just bomb people into submission.

      Saves your poor abused throat too.

      • First they came for the abstract nouns, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't an abstract noun.

        Or sumthin.

        • "Sumthin" is an abstract noun! Take it away!

  6. Wow, and I was specifically trying to avoid any suggestions of communism, yet here you are! lol

    • Just confirming your delusions for you. It'll keep you hiding under your bed.

      • Do you have any other angry points to make, my "let's all get along" collaborator friend?

        It's been my experience that the left's idea of everyone getting along, by the way, is that anyone who disagrees should just shut the heck up. lol

        • Ssshhhhh, 'they' will hear you, and eat your soul.

          • Weirdo! Next.

          • When I was young, I was told by reliable people who had lived under such regimes that communist countries were brutal ruthless dictatorships.

            And now you're telling me that communists only consult, and use concensus.

            That's all it takes to be a communist.

            So I guess we made a big fuss over nothing all those years eh?

            You learn something new everyday.!

          • I did no such thing. Now I suggest you go be angry at people somewhere else. Holy smokes!

          • I think perhaps your tea has steeped a little too long.

  7. "Command and control isn't a perversion of the federal government's role, it is its bloody mandate."

    Say's who? Provs are responsible for health, education and social services which are, by far, the three most important functions of government in today's Canada. Provs should treat Feds like busboy, I think Provs are being generous in providing Feds some dignity and allowing it to think it's a Headwaiter.

    "Instead of the old “command and control” model, the federal government should … "

    Iggy has learned the secret to stop bureaucracy behaving on the old command and control model? I wish he would share the answer with the rest of us who have been vexed by this issue for decades. Feds should get out of the way and let Canadians decided for themselves what kind of Canada we would like to live in.

    Come on you Gunners!!!

  8. Well in 1867 health, education and social services were minor items. They couldn't foresee how much things would change.

  9. Canada needs a central committee like the USSR's Polit Beauro

  10. Ignatieff's assertion that: "Ottawa needs to bring the country together in common purpose, and build networks of responsibilities that are focused on outcomes." would have seemed much less vacuous if he had immediately followed that with: "For example…", providing a concrete and detailed illustration of his point.

    • Completely agree. I didn't expect a grand strategy out of the conference, but one more degree of precision woudl have been quite useful.

    • Well it wasn't a political speech as such, he was summing up what he had learned, and absorbing general directions for the country, not campaigning.

      Caucus would certainly have to talk over all they learned.

  11. That's because you're an angry and weird person. Thanks.

    • It's YOUR tea, Dennis.

  12. As much as we've had some fairly dysfunctional federal governments, I can't help but agree that making concession after concession to the provinces does not a nation make.

    The provinces all seem to always agree that the feds should do more for them, but their grand unification theories always start and end with giving the provinces more authority.

    Presumably this means they have already got their resource, environment, health and education responsibilities well in hand.

    Are they keeping up with infrastructure commitments? How are they stewarding the environment they think they should be solely responsible for? Is everyone already well?

    And what are the provinces doing about their own democratic deficits, for instance? Are they building consensus with municipalities and school boards? Are they independently investigating their police forces whne something goes wrong? Are they conducting independent envrionmental assessments for developments when they are a co-proponent?

    • The tragedy of Canada is that we have never gelled into one country. We have ten countries.

      But that's how the constitution set it up. Everybody came in on their own terms, plus the provs have their own areas, health and education…two areas the feds should definitely be in charge of so we have the same standards everywhere.

      The remarkable thing is that it's chugged along as well as it has. That will change with all the new global economic pressures, but we've had a good run, considering.

  13. Er – funny that several of you lot do not understand the composition of the Federation – which was reinforced / refined by our new Constitution brought home and implemented by a great prime minister who believed – among other things – that the Federal government had a pretty important role. But I guess that puts you in the same cooking pot as Mr. Ignatieff. He leads after all the Liberal Party of Canada. Were he to become PM – which is becoming increasingly unlikely as he continues to shoot off his toes – he would be the leader of the largest party in terms of seats – and generally representing all 10 provinces and the Territories – in fact – all Canadians. Reciprocal Agreement between provinces – and he'll blow up – All Canadians should get this as part of Medicare – we get it in Alberta.

  14. Ignore the last sentence – out of context – had to truncate message

  15. "Trudeau meant it as an insult, but Paul Martin turned it into his job description."

    Actually Iggy does sound a lot like Paul Martin with this idea.

    Paul Martin basically was busy writing billion dollar cheques in his last year of office until the voters of Canada removed his chequing privileges. He fixed medicare "for a generation", the Kelowna accord etc.

    Thank goodness he got the boot when he did.

  16. For "headwaiter to the provinces" to have any meaning, the provinces would have to represent a common front on a wide range of issues – they don't. There are French-English divides, rich-poor divides, and provincialist-centralist divides (Alberta and Quebec vs. Ontario and the Maritimes, with the others in between) among the provinces.

    Moreover, the federal government does not represent the national interest. The federal government has long been occupied by a political party that needs Southern Ontario in order to win elections. Ontarians have historically been more open to centralization because they know Ottawa will represent their interests. In other words, the federal government is not much less parochial than the provinces themselves.

    • Right on, sir!

  17. I'd argue that the federal government doesn't even have a bloody mandate, but that's another story.

    Hardlining the provinces hasn't exactly strengthened the federation, either, now has it? Or, do you see the Clarity Act as some sort of victory dance over the provinces?

    Constitutionally, provinces and the federal government are separate orders, adults where the feds are granddaddy Canada. Regionalism is strong, even where there is an equally strong "national interest".

    Bulldozing is just as useless as soft-hearted collaboration, don't kid yourself. Governments have to work together in order to function, particularly in a federalist state. Governance by fiat from the federal government will send Quebec to another referendum, leave Alberta giving Ottawa the finger, and Ontario sitting on their lunchboxes wondering what the hell happened.

  18. The provinces should do as Quebec has done for years-hold Canada hostage-have they not reaped the benefits?