Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

The Office of Premier of Ontario 1945-2010: Who Really Advises?

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

The Office of Premier of Ontario 1945-2010: Who Really Advises?

Article excerpt

This article focuses on the composition of the Ontario Premier's office and uses an institutionalist approach to put the influence of advisors in context. It looks at expenditures attributed in the Public Accounts to the Premier's Office and staffing. It assumes that the number of advisors and their placement in the decision-making hierarchy should have a material impact on the quantity and quality of the advice being received by the Premier. Among other things the articles shows that the classic policy/administration divide was not clearly defined in Ontario. Instead it exhibits a back-and-forth habit of experimentation that depended on the personality of the prime minister, the capacities of political and bureaucratic advisors, and the stages of the governmental cycle. There have been discernible cycles in the hiring of political staff and in the growth of expenditures that would indicate the Premier's Office was more concerned with campaign preparations and externalities than it was in rivaling bureaucratic influence. Compared to Ottawa, where the structures of the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office have been far more distinct in this similar timeframe, the Ontario experience reveals itself as one of constant experimentation.

For almost two generations, observers of all sorts have almost unanimously lamented the growth in influence of prime ministerial advisors. Members of parliament and public servants have complained that brash young advisors have been presumptive in claiming to speak on behalf of "the power" and in holding that their "spoken truths" had more relevance and importance than any other advice. Scholars have chimed in with the conclusion that the strength of the PM's advisors are indicative of a will to "steer from the centre." In Canada, the most distinguished advocate of this model has been Donald Savoie who diagnosed a growing tendency to "govern from the centre" and the emergence of a new form of "court government" that required an important cadre of advisors. (1)

In her study for the Gomery Commission, Liane Benoit noted that political staff (or "exempt staff") played a valuable role in advising Prime Ministers. Paul Thomas was far more critical of political aides, arguing that they needed regulation and accountability. (2) More recently, Ian Brodie defended the work of political staffers, but conceded that training for their roles might be advantageous. (3) In the case of Ontario, Graham White chronicled the evolution of the informal function of advising the premier, but did not examine closely the nature of political aides. (4)

On the heels of the findings presented by Savoie and then of the Gomery Commission on the sponsorship scandal which pointed to unwarranted political intervention in a government program, (5) Peter Aucoin presented a new construct: the New Political Government, which featured "the concentration of power under the Prime Minister and his or her court of a few select ministers, political aides and public servants." (6) Aucoin observed that these pressures, which stemmed from increasing demands for accountability, consistency, transparency and openness, put an unprecedented strain on the Prime Minister. (7) The Aucoin model captured what many journalists have been observing for decades, but was not supported by empirical evidence. How is the "concentration of power" to be measured? Can the "enhanced presence and power of political staff" be proven? Can it be shown that Premiers today spend more time examining the qualification of the mandarins that ultimately report to him or her? Is there proof that public servants are more pressured today than in the past to toe the government line, or show enthusiasm for the government's plans and priorities?

Public Sector Leadership in the Premier's Office

In the immediate post-war period, the "Office of the Prime Minister" was easily ensconced in the east wing of Queen's Park. …

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