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Does the prime minister really need almost a thousand people to run his errands? Print E-mail
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 19 April 2004

According to a news story last week, there is a plan to set aside the entire city block across from Parliament Hill for the ever-growing staff of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and Privy Council Office (PCO).

It now takes a whole city block to accommodate the people who control the prime minister's contact with the public, Parliament and civil service. There are over a hundred staffers in the PMO, and over 800 in the PCO, currently spread out around town.

Understand, these are just the central co-ordinators. They are the pinnacle, the brain trust, the crème de la creme. Beneath them is a mountain of 37 cabinet ministers, 47 federal departments and major agencies, and 283,000 public servants.

The boss of the PCO is Alex Himelfarb. A couple years ago his office reported to then-prime minister Chretien on what Canadians think about the federal government.

The report was blunt. The PCO concluded that Canadians see public institutions as "remote, self-serving, inaccessible, non-responsive, occasionally inept, excessively adversarial and increasingly irrelevant."

As for parliamentary democracy, the PCO concluded that it had been taken over by the cabinet, which now exercises a "virtual monopoly" on power.

All the same, said the PCO bureaucrats, ordinary MPs are too short-sighted to develop a grasp of policy, so the powers of the prime minister (and by implication of the bureaucracy) should not be weakened.

In other words, Canadians already hold government in contempt because it doesn't work, but for heaven's sake don't change it.

Before the January Throne Speech, Martin (or Alex Himelfarb, or someone) had the PCO set up eight focus groups across the country to test all the new Martinite buzz words ("building a 21st century economy," "asserting Canada's role in the world," "creating a new partnership with municipalities," etc.) to see if they turned people on.

They didn't. Nobody knew what they meant. The only thing that got people really enthused was the idea of spending more on health care.

If Martin just promised us that, it would work for him. But no, he also wants to interfere more in how provinces spend it, which is none of Ottawa's constitutional concern.

Martin, who sounded strangely frantic even before he started sliding backwards, is getting more shrill by the week.

Steve Harper just has to make two promises--to increase health transfers to the provinces, and to cut taxes. That's it. He'd win.

And if anyone asks how he proposes to afford doing that, he just has to point across Wellington Street, to Alex Himelfarb and his 800 PCO tinkers and fix-its, co-ordinating their 47 departments and major agencies, and their quarter-million "remote, self-serving, inaccessible, non-responsive, occasionally inept, excessively adversarial and increasingly irrelevant" employees.

Martin thinks the country needs these people. It doesn't. We could get rid of half of them and never notice the difference.

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.
"Just Between Us" is a feature service of the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy. The purpose of the Citizens Centre is to enhance freedom and democracy by enabling ordinary citizens to become active and effective on important issues outside the normal processes of party politics.

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