I worked as a Ministerial aide for a few years, and even as a card-carrying Liberal, I cannot condemn the Minister for disagreeing with her public service advisors. Here’s why:
1. The “government” is Cabinet, made of of Ministers of the Crown. The public service, despite what the population thinks most of the time, is NOT the government.
2. Public service, or “ministry” bureaucrats, provide ministers with recommendations and analysis of options, but their long-term priorities (remember, governments come and go, the public service is forever) do not necessarily match the government-of-the-day’s priorities. What has happened to Min. Oda is a reflection of that.
3. Ministers also look at all decisions they have to make through a political lens. You might not like that lens, but they are the government and if you don’t like it enough, you cast your vote for the opposition in the next election.
In the fall of 2009, CIDA officials reviewed a request from KAIROS for over $7M in funding from CIDA. CIDA decided that KAIROS should be funded based on CIDA’s long-term priorities, and provided Minister Oda with a document for her to sign on September 28, 2009, that would approve KAIROS’ request if she agreed. The document did not provide any option for the Minister to disagree based on the government-of-the-day’s priorities and was already signed by the appropriate officials, which is totally normal. CIDA President Biggs noted in testimony that this exclusion of a place for the Minister to exercise her prerogative to disagree with bureaucrats had been a problem for a few years, and that documents are now formatted to ensure the Minister can exercise her prerogative (as is my experience in Ontario).
After two months of weighing her options, the Minister was pressed by the public service to make a decision as KAIROS needed the info one way or another. On the day the decision was finally made the Minister was away from her Ottawa office and was on the phone with her staff. Normally, that means all the staff (we had 12 in our office) are gathered around a table in conference call fashion. The Minister directed her staff to indicate that she disagreed with the public service and would not continue to fund KAIROS. ONE of those staffers (we don’t know which one) put “NOT” on the document because there was no place to disagree and then sign with the auto-pen. Standard stuff. We know there was an urgency about the decision, so sending it back to the public service to correct, and go through the process of getting signatures and dealing with some public service blowback, was not a reasonable option.
“Embassy”, a publication for diplomats, filed a Freedom of Information request and obtained copies of the document, presumably because de-funding KAIROS was kind of a big deal. Embassy them reported on the whole story, starting all these wheels in motion.
April 23, 2010
Minister Oda is asked an Order Paper question in the house about de-funding KAIROS by Glen Pearson (L-London North Centre). The question is here. Mr. Pearson basically asks why KAIROS was de-funded if the bureaucrats thought that the request met CIDA’s priorities. Remember, CIDA’s priorities are not necessarily the government’s priorities, and Minister Oda said as much. Once the Minister decided to not fund KAIROS, it became a CIDA decision. That’s because the Minister is the boss at CIDA. It’s like, for example, if a Vice-President at RBC wants to lend $100-million to Facebook, but the President of RBC disagrees, and directs the Vice-President to NOT lend to Facebook. It then is a RBC decision to not lend to Facebook.
No lies, simply, it seems, a misunderstanding on Mr. Pearson’s part about what “government” means, and what constitutes a CIDA decision.
October 28, 2010
Minister Oda is asked an oral question by Mr. Francis Valeriote (L-Guelph). The question is hereT. This question is about, again, the difference between CIDA priorities and government priorities, and what constitutes a final decision. Just to be clear – every recommendation or “decision” a public service department makes is NOT FINAL, nor can it be called a Department Decision until the Minister signs off on it. Mr. Valeriote’s assertion that funding KAIROS was aligned with CIDA’s bureaucrats’ country program objectives is true, but also is it true that funding KAIROS does not meet the government’s objectives (where government is Cabinet in the person of Minister Oda). There is no contradiction. Mr. Valeriote is just upset that the Minister gets to win, because she’s the Minister.
Now, the question of WHY the Minister made the decision she did is valid as well, and the Minister simply said, “because that’s what the government chose”, which is kind of like when my kid gets upset because I answer “because I told you so” when he asks why he has to go to the store to get milk even though I am perfectly capable of doing so myself. I’m the mother, I get to decide. He might not like it, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles and when he’s a father, he will do the same thing.
Again, no lies, simply the opposition being the opposition and likely purposefully not picking up on the nuances of the two statements that appear contradictory but that are both true. Also, being 15 year-olds and not liking that the government in the person of Minister Oda made a decision they didn’t like.
December 9, 2010
Here’s where we get into this, and precision in answers. Keep in mind that these people are trained to answer questions like this (thank you, Aaron Sorkin):
Person A: Do you have the time?
Person B: Yes.
The spirit of the question is that Person A wants to know what time it is. But if Person A REALLY wanted the time, it would’ve gone like this:
Person A: What time is it?
Person B: /provides actual time
When you appear before a committee, you are trained to answer as in example 1. It’s as simple as that – this is national politics, lots of power and the stakes are high. You only answer the questions you are actually asked.
Knowing that, the Minister’s testimony is here. The Minister SIGNED OFF on disagreeing with the bureaucrats’ recommendation as shown by the insertion of the “NOT”. The Minister, while on the phone with a group of her staffers, directed the NOT to be inserted, but did not physically do it herself, and does not know which one of the staffers did it. She did not lie. She answered very precisely and correctly.
1. CIDA bureaucrats have “country program objectives”. These do not necessarily jive with the government’s objectives for foreign aid. Check.
2. CIDA bureaucrats recommended KAIROS to the Minister through a signed document that left no room for the Minister to disagree. The latter has been a problem for a few years and the bureaucrats should’ve stopped pre-supposing agreement and left space for the Minister to disagree a long time ago. The bureaucrats finally get the message and change the way they send decision documents to the Minister. Check.
3. The Minister disagreed after 2 months of weighing her options as is her prerogative. Check.
4. The Minister, while away from her office and needing to make a decision, directed her staff to indicate such disagreement and auto-pen it, thus ending funding for KAIROS. Check.
5. LIKELY: KAIROS freaks out and goes to their MPs to ask WTF. Check.
6. Liberal members who are in opposition start asking questions that are meant to meet their own political objectives in a greater narrative of transparency and accountability. Check.
PROBLEM: There is no issue with transparency and accountability in this particular instance.
7. Minister Oda answers questions in QP and before a committee based on the “government” being cabinet in her person, and “CIDA decisions” are only real when she signs off and is very precise as a seasoned politician should be. Check.
WHERE IS THE PROBLEM?? There is simply no contempt here. I’d LOVE to find it. But I cannot. The reasons for de-funding KAIROS are the government’s prerogative, and so what if the Prime Minister directed the Minister to disagree? He’s allowed to do that too – he sets the agenda.
Also, if this is the stuff the Liberals are counting on to win an election, we’re toast.