Thursday, June 28, 2007
# Posted 8:13 AM by Taylor Owen
Prime ministerial power stifles decision-making
Last week Prime Minister Stephen Harper boldly reversed his position and proposed that the renewal of the Afghan mission be contingent on cross-party consensus.
If, however, the Prime Minister is serious about developing an Afghan consensus, he will need to radically rethink how foreign policy is developed in Canada. For more than a decade, the creation of foreign policy has become more opaque and less discussed as it shifted from Parliament, ministers and mandarins to the advisers in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).
Jean Chrétien's decision to pursue Kyoto – without an implementation plan – and to stay out of Iraq – without a strategy for managing the U.S. relationship – occurred with minimal parliamentary or even cabinet debate.
Paul Martin's decision to move forces to Kandahar was made without widespread public discussion or parliamentary approval. More recently, Harper's China strategy was formulated in isolation and ignored the wisdom and experience of the Department of Foreign Affairs on the issue.
This trend has profound policy implications. In each case, a closed and unilateral approach produced poor outcomes: We've failed to meet our Kyoto targets, relations with the U.S. are poor, the counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar is struggling and Chinese engagement is at a new low.
With the lessons of closed decision-making increasingly clear, the Prime Minister's decision to seek consensus on the Afghan mission should be embraced by all Canadians. However, building this consensus needs to begin today, not in 2009, and the PMO must lead the way. To put force behind his proposal, the Prime Minister could take several simple steps.
First, the PMO should release an uncensored version of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade's report on prisoner abuse. When Parliament last tried to investigate, the government sought to prevent witnesses from testifying to the ethics committee.
When witnesses finally arrived, Conservative MPs walked out of the committee, effectively shutting it down. Canadian democracy relies on Parliament's powers of investigation and oversight. Allowing Parliament to perform its function would go a long way to signal the Prime Minister's commitment.
Second, the minister of defence, responsible for military operations in Afghanistan, must be allowed to answer questions about the mission in the House of Commons. Gordon O'Connor's rare responses during Question Period have been reduced to short dismissive statements, and his relations with the press are highly restricted. An accountable and effective policy debate is impossible if the mission's key leader – the minister of defence – is silenced.
Finally, the PMO should release its grip on government bureaucrats working the Afghanistan file. Astonishingly, the PMO must clear all communications and policies relating to Afghanistan – effectively shutting out input from policy experts both within and outside government.
While controlling a debate is often confused with leadership, nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to our country's most important policy decisions, such as the war in Afghanistan, the government must draw on the collective wisdom of the whole country, not simply the ideas of a handful of PMO staffers.
This means allowing government to interact openly with those it represents. There are numerous emerging networks, particularly in the academic community, that the government could draw upon for collaboration on the Afghan mission. Send them the signal that they have a partner in Ottawa.
In short, Canadians will look to their Prime Minister to reach out and engage everyone, even those who disagree with him, to become a consensus builder.
Brian Mulroney, another Conservative prime minister, demonstrated such leadership during the first Gulf War. Recognizing the gravity and sensitivity of the situation, he invited the opposition leaders – even those who'd openly opposed the war – into his cabinet. He even deputized Audrey McLaughlin into the Privy Council so she could read classified information.
Disagreements persisted, but the debate shifted from being partisan to solution-oriented. At the moment, few could imagine Harper opening up the cabinet discussion to Jack Layton, Stéphane Dion and Gilles Duceppe. The current implausibility of such a suggestion is the canary in the coal mine of the Prime Minister's proposed new, open foreign policy debate.
If Prime Minister Harper is serious about developing an Afghan consensus, he will need to start now, not in 2009. (1) opinions -- Add your opinion
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