In­ex­pe­ri­ence at root of stum­bling by Lib­er­als

Regina Leader-Post - - OPINION - JOHN GORMLEY John Gormley is a broad­caster, lawyer, au­thor and for­mer Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive MP whose ra­dio talk show is heard week­days from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on 650 CKOM Saska­toon and 980 CJME Regina.

Gov­ern­ment’s in­ner work­ings are Byzan­tine. Civil ser­vants who are be­yond the reach of vot­ers pro­pose and some­times push pol­icy po­si­tions. It’s up to the elected politi­cians to ac­cept, re­ject or mod­ify the ad­vice from their bu­reau­crats.

Like a John le Carre spy novel, there are many agen­das at work in the pub­lic ser­vice, of­ten over­lap­ping and se­quenced, like a chess game.

From al­tru­ism — it seems like the right thing to do — to darker, self-serv­ing mo­tives like grow­ing a de­part­ment’s reach, bud­get and the power of civil ser­vice man­agers — many fac­tors can un­der­lie the rec­om­men­da­tions of bu­reau­crats.

And the peo­ple pitch­ing ideas are pa­tient. Just be­cause to­day’s po­lit­i­cal watch­ers re­ject an idea, noth­ing pre­vents it from be­ing ad­vanced again in a cou­ple of years.

It is the job of in­tel­li­gent, dili­gent and well-briefed cab­i­net min­is­ters to use gover­nance prin­ci­ples to ask the right ques­tions to test civil ser­vice rec­om­men­da­tions and, at the same time, en­sure that pol­icy jibes with the gov­ern­ment’s po­lit­i­cal pri­or­i­ties.

Two re­cent slip­pery spells for the Justin Trudeau Lib­er­als bear out the need for dili­gence and the ne­ces­sity of hav­ing some adults in the room.

For years, se­nior De­part­ment of Fi­nance bu­reau­crats have wanted to rein in the use of cor­po­ra­tions for tax plan­ning by pro­fes­sion­als and busi­ness op­er­a­tors.

Some of this is mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to stop what they see as tax avoid­ance. In other cases, it’s about envy and hubris from se­nior bu­reau­crats mak­ing $200,000 a year, with six weeks of va­ca­tion and gen­er­ous tax­payer-paid pen­sions, who don’t like peo­ple get­ting tax ad­van­tages not en­joyed by Ottawa man­darins.

In the past, politi­cians named Jean Chre­tien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Jim Fla­herty all re­buffed the ad­vice to go af­ter cor­po­ra­tions be­cause it would harm busi­ness in­vest­ment and wouldn’t play on Main Street.

Is it mere co­in­ci­dence this time that an in­ex­pe­ri­enced prime min­is­ter who is a trust fund millionaire in­su­lated from real world val­ues be­comes the one to fi­nally take the Fi­nance De­part­ment sug­ges­tions and run with them?

At his side in this folly is not a fi­nance min­is­ter of the Martin or Fla­herty ex­pe­ri­ence, but an in­her­ited mul­ti­mil­lion­aire who never held elected of­fice un­til 17 months be­fore he rolled out Fi­nance’s cor­po­rate tax plans in his lat­est bud­get.

Then, there was this week’s de­ba­cle where the Canada Rev­enue Agency sup­pos­edly “got ahead” of the gov­ern­ment by ex­pand­ing the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of tax rules to grab pre­vi­ously un­taxed em­ployee dis­counts.

It is part of the bu­reau­cratic code that noth­ing hap­pens with­out min­is­te­rial ap­proval. So how did this one slip by?

We’ll likely never know, but in 2015 when Justin Trudeau rolled out his “di­ver­sity cab­i­net” — one of the least ex­pe­ri­enced in Cana­dian his­tory — we as­sumed that he had at least cov­ered ba­sic com­pe­ten­cies.

The min­is­ter of rev­enue is Diane Le­bouthillier, a so­cial worker from the Gaspe re­gion of ru­ral north­ern Que­bec who was in mu­nic­i­pal pol­i­tics be­fore be­ing elected to Par­lia­ment. She has never par­tic­i­pated be­fore in the gover­nance of an en­ter­prise even close to the size or com­plex­ity of the CRA.

While proudly not­ing ear­lier this year that she had fi­nally been able to do her first in­ter­view in English, she wasn’t up for live ra­dio in­ter­views in English when we asked this week.

Af­ter three days of de­fen­sive scram­bling, the gov­ern­ment backed down.

But it is not known if the CRA min­is­ter un­ques­tion­ingly de­ferred to “ex­perts” in her de­part­ment giv­ing her ad­vice on tax­ing em­ployee dis­counts; or if some­one was asleep at the switch and sim­ply missed the im­pli­ca­tions of CRA’s brief­ing.

It is also pos­si­ble that this CRA de­ci­sion was the prod­uct of a com­bi­na­tion of in­ex­pe­ri­ence, naivete and the dan­ger­ous be­lief of those mak­ing the mis­takes that they are the smartest peo­ple in the room.

This is be­com­ing a pat­tern and it is not go­ing to end well.

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