New Canada, New Labour: Trudeau takes a lesson in Blairite government

Posted in: Political history, Political ideologies

As the Labour Party wrestles over whether to honour or disown its New Labour past, Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has been busy assembling the architecture of a Blairite central government.

Trudeau’s youth, good looks and self-declared “sunny ways” all evoke the Tony Blair of 1997. Both were swept to power on the back of popular discontent with a tired, shrunken conservative government, and each embodied widely held aspirations for a new, open and optimistic national spirit.

But the parallels don’t end there. Trudeau is consciously borrowing from the structures of the delivery state that Tony Blair developed in his second term as Prime Minister, most often associated with Sir Michael Barber and his No10 Delivery Unit.  Barber joined Trudeau and his Cabinet for a retreat earlier this week held to hammer out priorities for the new Liberal government, advising the assembled ministers on how to deliver their core objectives. (With the oil price still falling, and China’s debt bubble unwinding, the global economic slowdown was top of their agenda. The Liberal government was elected to inject a deficit-financed infrastructure investment stimulus into the economy, and it needs to deliver on that in its first Budget).

Trudeau has appointed his own Barber figure, Matthew Mendelsohn, to be the Canadian government’s first deputy secretary for “results and delivery”.  Mendelsohn is one of a stable of top Trudeau advisers who worked for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s administration, which pioneered the take up of Barber’ delivery approach in Canada. Political links, shared institutional history and a common language often facilitate policy transfer within the so-called “Anglosphere” countries, and in this case, the pivotal figure was Trudeau’s new Principal Secretary, Gerald Butts, who travelled to the UK in the early 2000s to study the Blair government’s delivery unit and took the lessons back to Ontario.

Institutional and political differences limit the scope for straightforward R & D – “Rob and Duplicate” – in governance practices across countries. Canada is a federal country, with powerful provincial and territorial governments, unlike centralised England (for the most part, Barber’s writ did not run in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, since each has devolved government responsible for its public services). The Prime Minister cannot simply pull a delivery lever in Ottawa and expect the Canadian provincial premiers to do his bidding. Trudeau is also committed to restoring some semblance of Cabinet government to Canada, after the government-by-closed-clique administration of the Stephen Harper years. His advisers know they need to empower, and engage carefully, with Cabinet ministers, which will require modifications to the delivery and implementation structure pioneered by Barber and Blair. On forming his government, Trudeau lifted the technique of Ministerial appointment mandates – letters to new Ministers setting out their key objectives - straight from the Blair delivery textbook. But the letters were in two halves: one setting out how a Minister should govern with openness, democratic engagement and accountability, in pointed contrast to the Harper government; and the second, a list of delivery goals drawn from the lengthy Liberal manifesto. How Canada’s ministers spatch these technocratic and democratic modes together will be an interesting object lesson in modern federal government.

Does Trudeau’s delivery agenda signal fresh vitality for new public management (NPM)? Elsewhere in the world, the high water mark of NPM appears to have passed, challenged from below by democratic forces, such as insurgent political parties and powerful city leaders exercising their own mandates; by the emergence of identity issues, such as immigration, which cannot be dealt with as “delivery” challenges;  by the explosion of data, which can be used to spread power out of central government as much as to underpin centralised public sector management; and by new relational approaches to public sector reform, which draw on the insights of complexity theory and the twin democratic and realist turns in political theory.

On the centre-left, in particular, advocates of relational egalitarianism stress the need for active, democratic equality, in which policy ambitions are shaped in everyday struggles and then embodied in the institutions and practices of a country, not handed down from above and measured on a civil servant’s spreadsheet. Contrast the public support for the NHS and the National Minimum Wage which the lack of popular commitment to say, the Labour government’s child poverty target, and you have this argument crystallised.

Trudeau must also contend with the demoralisation of the civil service under his predecessor. Harper consistently marginalised his Ottawan public servants, to the point of ritual humiliation. There was a palpable sense of relief amongst the official class when Trudeau won. They will expect a restoration of Canadian public service traditions, and to be trusted with formulating policy advice as well as the administrative implementation of the Liberals’ plans.

For all these reasons, Trudeau’s version of the delivery state may end up looking very different to Blair’s. But the central political insight – that progressive governments have to gain the public’s trust, not just to defend, but to consistently improve public services  – animates Trudeau’s government as much as it did Blair’s. Whether Trudeau can govern effectively beyond his honeymoon period and, as importantly, leave a progressive legacy, will be the test of his Ottawan experiment in delivery.






Posted in: Political history, Political ideologies


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