The problem with the PMO -

The problem with the PMO

Harper’s real issue is his own office, writes Peter White, and no cabinet shuffle will fix the problem


Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Has the Harper government, as charged by MP Brent Rathgeber when he quit the Tory caucus in mid-June, now morphed into what it once mocked?

Yes and no.

True, the government appears secretive, hyper-partisan, prone to making weird appointments (our new ambassador to Jordan was the head of the PM’s security detail), and often the reverse of open and transparent.

But despite compiling enemies lists (Chrétien did it too), appointing to the Senate “objective” journalists who morph into embarrassing Tory hacks, and being politically dead in Quebec, the Harper government is generally managing the country well.

Unless the economy tanks (unlikely), Stephen Harper is on course to win another majority (again without Quebec) by dint of the old Bill Davis formula of keeping the opposition about equally split between the Liberals and the NDP.

Harper’s problem is more subtle, and potentially more serious than transitory “scandals.”

The PM’s problem is the PMO – his own office. No cabinet shuffle will fix this problem.

The Harper PMO, and also Conservative Party headquarters under Harper, seem to have fallen prey to the Thomas à Becket syndrome.

When in 1170 Henry II of England lost patience with his one-time good friend and former chancellor Thomas, whom he had appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, he allegedly said (doubtless in Norman French), “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

Four eager young knights then rode secretly to Canterbury and eventually murdered the archbishop inside his own cathedral.

Henry, along with all Christendom, was horrified.

Many of the young acolytes and hero-worshippers in Harper’s PMO and party are of this knightly mould.

Harper’s problem is the culture of fanatical zealotry deeply embedded in his PMO – an all-powerful and relatively modern institution, essentially invented by Pierre Trudeau.

What exactly is the Prime Minister’s Office? And what is the job of the chief of staff to the Prime Minister?

Pierre Trudeau began the buildup of the modern PMO, which grew enormously during his 15 years in office. Since Trudeau, it has grown even further, to what is today a hard-to-manage monster at the centre of our government.

The job of the PMO is essentially to help the PM to do his job, in every area. The prime minister wears a number of hats: minister of the Crown and head of the government, chief policy-maker, arbiter of all senior appointments, MP and inspirer of his caucus, leader of his party, international statesman, and usually husband and father. The chief of staff must ensure that all of these functions are well discharged, and none is neglected. He or she must also be fearless (but diplomatic) in telling the PM what he is doing wrong – the toughest part of the job by far, and one in which most chiefs of staff have failed.

Harper, like most PMs, demands absolute loyalty from his office, government and caucus. But there is a fine line between loyalty and utter subservience. Harper’s PMO, filled with eager and ambitious young (often very young) Harper admirers, is loyal to the point of blindness to the effects of their brashness.

One of Harper’s few failings is occasional lapses in his judgment of character, resulting in some unfortunate appointments that come back to haunt him. The apparently unvetted appointment of Arthur Porter to head the Security Intelligence Review Committee, and also to the Privy Council, is an inexplicable case in point.

These and other poor appointments are a sign either of unacceptably shoddy staff work, or of the staff’s unwillingness or inability to tell the prime minister the truth and persuade him to pay the necessary heed. In either case, Harper’s PMO is failing him.

Before Nigel Wright’s departure, there was at least some adult supervision of the most extreme hardliners, and, one has good reason to believe, the occasional word of warning to the PM himself.

But now, one wonders, who, if anyone, is speaking truth to Harper?

The fearless advice required will not come from the civil service. It is unlikely to come from ministers, most of whom are too fearful of losing their jobs to be in any way critical of the leader, or to show independent initiative, however necessary such constructive criticism and independence might be.

Effective, independent, course-correcting advice can only come from the PMO, and is most effectively channeled through the chief of staff. Mulroney used to say that he detested getting critical memos from his PMO, but he would nevertheless lock himself in the bathroom and read them.

It is the nature of strong leaders to resent criticism and even advice, and to surround themselves with unquestioning yes men and women.

Only the wisest, and hence the most successful leaders, force themselves to reach beyond their tight and worshipful inner circle to seek more objective advice and analysis.

Harper’s ability to do so is now the critical question of his prime ministership.

Peter White, a member of the Conservative Party since 1958, was Principal Secretary to prime minister Brian Mulroney. He is a delegate from Brome-Missisquoi to upcoming Calgary convention.


The problem with the PMO

  1. But now, one wonders, who, if anyone, is speaking truth to Harper?

    “I don’t want any yes-men around me.
    I want everybody to tell me the truth
    even if it costs them their job.”

    Samuel Goldwyn

    • Harper doesn’t care about the truth. And he sure as sugar won’t accept anyone into the fold if they’re not yes-men beyond any and all doubt.

  2. I think Peter speaks for a lot of us disgruntled Tory voters with this piece. The fundamental problem, though, is the fact that the PM has all that power in the first place, and solving that issue will take a massive overhaul of our entire system of government, something which is unlikely to happen in the near future. The farther future, perhaps.

    • Yep, the truth has been completely banned. Say one thing and do another is how all politicians operate today, is not just Harper.

      Politicians are like diapers, just takes a small amount of time then they all stink. So change them often.

  3. I disagree. I don’t think he’s doing a competent job running the country at all and I sure as hell don’t see another majority in his future. In the next election Quebec can’t be expected to continue supporting the NDP and in the rest of the country the left is heavily leaning Liberal. In a job where one needs to make friends Harper has made only enemies.

    • Harper actually has more allies than you think. Chief among them is his collection of soundbites on Mulcair and Trudeau the younger. Once he sounds the bell in two years, his strategy will be firmly in place, his caucus moving firmly in lockstep, and his campaign team on standby just in case his opposition gets any funny ideas about anything.

      He’s going to get his majority and come out smelling like roses.

      • Yes, we’ve seen evidence of such soundbites turning around and biting Harper on the behind repeatedly. The one pertaining to The Grace Foundation was in the news again today. That worked out so well for the Cons.

        • You already severly underestimate this man. In only a matter of days, The Grace Foundation soundbite is going to be forgotten. It’s going to be ancient history when the election bell sounds.

        • Grace Foundation is a Liberal lobby bribe group masquarading as a charity. The more you dig, the more you realize it should have its charitable status revoked.

          I got a kick out of how Trudeau decieved the public on his being charitable for back room money.

          • If they’re a “Liberal lobby bribe group masquerading as a charity” how do you explain all the Conservative hacks and bagmen on their board? Is that really the best you can do? Kinda sad actually.

  4. “One of Harper’s few failings is occasional lapses in his judgment of character”
    “Few failings?” WOW – the author of this cupcake piece needs to get out into the public more.

  5. Peter, excellent piece…I’m sure most thinking people in Canada, all the way across to Liz May, believe the PMO has become a serious flaw in our system. I believe Harper, like most of his predecessors, has become corrupted by power. It is, perhaps, inevitable. The country, on the other hand, need not stand by idly and accept what has happened to the federal system. While Harper wishes to micro-manage most elements of his partisan gaggle, he sacrifices real progressive thought to blind loyalty. Is it true that not even his cabinet ministers may speak publicly without having their speeches vetted by the PMO.

    Centralization of federal power will not provide a strong future for this country. In my mind, it contravenes the very nature of Canada. We are a ragamuffin collection of mixed pasts. We live across an enormous landscape that results in very different needs for so many sectors of the population. I realize that lessor levels of government address many of these needs but the Feds retain many of the important portfolios that affect the lives of all Canadians.

    Our Members of Parliament have become “whipped” pawns in the game of partisanship. The role of back-benchers is nearly non-existent except as an orchestrated “yay” or “nay”. Federal policy needs to be debated by strong constituent representatives who bring the flavour of the nation to the Commons. If policies being debated were actually thoughtful, progressive and could garner consensus, they would be passed on their own merit. MP’s should firstly gain an understanding of the attitudes and values of their constituents. They should present bills to the House from the floor. They should respect the position they have been given by those voters. Their present behavior in the House certainly doesn’t indicate this. They should work hard to find the necessary legislation to address old and new problems, remembering whose money they are spending in the process. Sure benevolent dictatorships are expeditious but at what cost. Generally, ego overcomes the psyche, resulting in preservation of power becoming the paramount concern. Hiding self-serving initiatives in an omnibus bill is justified by such folks who think the “masses” don’t really know what’s good for them. But you see, it doesn’t matter “what” they think. If the vast majority of them think the same thing then by democratic definition “it’s good for them”.

    I understand a bureaucracy is, by nature, self-serving. This is why the civil service should be a “lean mean fightin’ machine”. It is the job of our leadership to remind the Service who’s money they are spending as well. Any successful venture, is one that can clearly identify its vision, mission and raison d’être. It picks a concise set of objectives and masters the process of addressing them. While the Federal government has burgeoned into an obese sloth, it now spends far more on feeding itself than addressing the reason they exist in the first place.

    Concentrating the power in the PMO is NOT the answer. Rather, the nation needs to engage in active dialogue, led by true leaders, to re-establish the reasons we want some issues to remain in the hands of a federal system. We then need to determine what those issues are, presently, and for the future. Once that is accomplished, we need to question whether or not the political system we have now is designed to address those issues and foster national consensus. Oh we see a cursory attempt at this by partisan policymakers a few months before our modern, tainted elections, but it isn’t a sustained effort involving all Members of Parliament. Isn’t it about time that we began the most important task for a developing nation? We need a Constitution. Yes it may take a huge amount of time and effort to fashion one today. Perhaps attempting this ominous task, will re-focus the nation on establishing a real set of values we might have in common. We may devise better methods of government for our country. Not having a fundamental set of principles should nag us as citizens. Frankly, it is embarrassing that we don’t have a ratified constitution. Saying that it should be put off for another fifty years is just plain shirking.

    Sadly, the real thing that feeds this beast is apathy. Politicians bank on it. The government being in the sorry state that it is, comes from the fact that their employers (taxpaying Canadians), have condoned this degeneration. We don’t really care. It is certainly not because taxpayers are content with our state of affairs. I often wonder how bad it has to get before the groundswell begins. One of the most important traits of a national leader should be his or her ability to motivate the population. Media once rallied the populace around important issues; now they rally the stakeholders around profit. However, we now have the technological tool necessary to combat the problem; Internet. There is no reason today why every individual can’t weigh in on the hot topics of the day. Referendums could be accomplished with ease. If people felt their views could be heard and consensus was drawn from them, they may be spurred onto a more active civic life. The information age is a new renaissance that has the potential for reform rather than revolution.

    Whether we are up to the task of reform, remains to be seen. The position of national leader should be bestowed on a person who demonstrates the characteristics of true leadership. It should not be a “prize” awarded to the most tenacious, well-funded, over-bearing zealot. Staunch partisanship contributes to the demise of representative government. I challenge all Canadians to open the doors of the House and let a fresh wind blow though. Get involve! Question everything! Consider many points of view and modify your position. Then stand up and tell the world what you value. Articulate whats important to you and your country. Raise the level of your expectations for your Member of Parliament. Stand guard on the true north strong and free. We owe it to those who died fighting for it.

    Murray Pridham
    Citizen of Tatamagouche, NS Canada

    • “he sacrifices real progressive thought to blind loyalty”. Really? I didn’t think he had ever had a progressive thought. The progressive wing of the party was carefully weeded out. He couldn’t even cope with the populist Manning, which is why he left the PC party in 1997 and joined the secretive ultra right National Citizens Coalition, who have been anti-immigrant, anti-healthcare, anti long form census, among other things. Since that party supports Harper as one of their own, and does not reveal their financing, as Canadians we have no idea who is paying for the Harper Agenda.

  6. # PM Harper: After yrs in power,the Canadian Paradise is till far far away. Criminals are supposed to be in jail, solving native problems, helping seniors is still unresolved…well ..somebody messed up.

  7. It is the nature of strong leaders to resent criticism and even advice,
    and to surround themselves with unquestioning yes men and women.

    Ah, no…it’s the nature of bullies and autocrats to do so. Strong leaders surround themselves with people who are are willing and able to offer sage advice and help them avoid the dangers of hubris.

  8. I was shocked when Brent Rathgeber mentioned that the PMO consists of more than 100 so called advisors to the PM. I am sure most of these non-elected “friends of the PM” are paid huge salaries plus expenses all with taxpayers money. I estimate that the total cost of the PMO to us the taxpayers is at least 50 million bucks per annum. I find the whole thing obscene.

  9. Excerpt – “the Harper government is generally managing the country well.”

    Has the author not heard this government is cutting science and technology AGAIN? Does the author so easily forget the many other insults to Canadian democracy imposed by these regime which are too numerous to publish in this tiny space?

    A garbage government should not be defended like this. The author’s overall assessment reeks of generalizations, inaccuracy and bias without providing clear and fair examples of what the author considers “good government.”

    I can only conclude the author of this article is too poorly informed to be allowed to publish such abominations and inaccuracies.

  10. Sadly, the office has changed the person. The symbol of the flaw is the warning sign advertized to the country, which says everywhere “the Harper Government”. It is a misplaced term that reflects a wrong view of our Parliamentary Democracy. It should not be all about him. Great Prime Ministers “lead” but don’t “own”. They get the job done as a team, and the PM works through Ministers, and gives more respect and power to backbench MPs and Parliament itself, which is not the government. Harper was elected in 1993 on a platform of expanding the tools of democracy and empowering local MPs. He supported more frequent use of referendums, MP recall, a Triple E Senate and much more to expand the democratic limits of the Canadian machine. Since coming to power, he has done little to do these things. He has reverted to a classic old-fashioned Conservative that is concerned as much about himself, his image, his personal view of the world and how he can use Canada to make it so. There is not enough about nation building, leaving the machinery of government more democratic and accountable by the time her leaves. He has unfortunately created his own extreme hate group against him, because he has unreasonably personalized the PMO and micro-managed government. He sees his tenure as the Stephen Harper era, rather than the modern Conservative era. The country is not all about him. His misguided notions are the trappings of dictators who build monuments to themselves. What is the vision that he is promoting for our county going forward. It must become principle over person, and destiny before personal legacy. He won’t be around forever, so then what ?

  11. PMO has lots of issues. For starters too much power in one spot is bad for taxpayers.

    Also bad that unions, corrupt lobby groups and money for nothing whiners have more inluence than those that pay for it.

    Also, the position is a term dictator, no recall, no referendum, no accountabilty and no recourse for those that pay for it.

    Makes democracy a ruse in Canada as all options on the ballot are for more government waste and corruption, with less money in our wallets. Does not really mater how or if you vote. Not even a box saying you want better choices.

    Fact is politicians work for statism, fore back room unions and lobby corruption to decieve us out of our money. That is why politicians are viewed as pond scum by many.

  12. All of Ottawa is a cesspool of corruption, deception, waste, bailout buddies lobbying for our money. Lots of money for nothing whiners as politicians have no spine for ethics, theyare ther because they discard ethics.

    Archillies heel of democracy, taxing people for corruption, waste, buddy bailots and dysfunctional whiners.

  13. The elephant in the room is our winner-takes-all disproportional voting system. Voting systems are either proportional (producing governments based on how voters vote) or disproportional (producing governments that are not based on how voters vote). Canada’s current FPTP voting system is disproportional and is the reason we typically get governments that are dominated entirely by one PMO of one party that did not receive most of our votes (a so-called “majority”) or an unstable “minority” government. With PR we would be governed by stable majority coalitions made entirely of MPs that actually earned their seats all voters – putting voters in the drivers’ seat rather than an unelected and unpopular PMO.