There was the Clown Car brigade, running Rights and Democracy into the ground. Then the bullying, incompetent lapdog Christiane Ouimet at the ironically-named Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, roundly denounced by the Auditor General. More recently, there was Shirish Chotalia, presiding over ever more toxic working conditions at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
When it comes to top public service jobs, Stephen Harper appears to prefer blind loyalty and ideological alignment over good old-fashioned competence. Indeed, the more cynical among us might suspect that the latter two qualities would be a positive disadvantage in the politicized climate in which the federal public service and Crown agencies is presently forced to operate. Certainly Linda Keen, Paul Kennedy, Peter Tinsley, Munir Sheikh, Pat Stogran and the rusticated Kevin Page would agree.
Now a new top manager—Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd—is in the spotlight. She was mentioned last December as one of three “watchdogs” whose odd inability to bark have attracted attention. In a year and a half, she found not a single instance of anyone breaking lobbying rules.
But in her case, there may be a unique reason for that. She refuses to divulge what the rules actually are. She will only do so, she declares, if she receives a complaint.
That’s an interesting approach for an enforcement agency, to put it mildly. Imagine a police force run that way—none of us is told what the law actually is until we are arrested and put on trial for a breach of it. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but in this hypothetical instance we are deliberately kept ignorant. That is likely to produce one docile population.
In some countries, we are told, anything not permitted by law is presumed to be forbidden. This takes that legal principle one giant step further: if the laws themselves are secret, nearly anything may be forbidden. Small wonder that the Commissioner’s workload has been light: people are likely keeping their heads down, being prudential to the point of paralysis, second-guessing their actions every minute.
Do we have here a new theory of management? At first glance, it actually seems to be ancient—wu-wei, or “ruling by inaction,” having its roots in Taoism. Confucius spoke of the Emperor Shun, who ruled simply by adopting a majestic attitude and turning his face to the South—a posture not unfamiliar to those of us who have been following Stephen Harper’s five years of leadership.
Emperor Shun, however, was not a tyrant or a micro-manager, but a man of such stature and virtue that his people desired only to be virtuous themselves. And Harper’s Commissioners cannot be accused of majesty, although Christiane Ouimet certainly gave it a go. Screaming at staff, however, does seem to contradict the notion of wu-wei.
Moreover, the folks with red noses and big floppy shoes over at Rights and Democracy lack the gravitas of the Emperor Shun, to put it mildly, and, judging from staff complaints, are rather too active as rulers: inquiring into employees’ ethnic origins, and spending your money and mine on private dicks, a hugely expensive and unnecessary forensic audit, lavish perks and mutual contract-letting.
Nope. Not much wu-wei there.
So we are left with our initial impression: Harper hires bad managers, period. Why? I am once again reminded of Osip Mandelstam’s poem about Stalin:*
And around him the rabble of narrow-necked chiefs—
He plays with the services of half-men
Who warble, or miaow, or moan.
He alone pushes and prods.
That’s the way Harper wants it—and the merit principle be damned.
*Get thee behind me, Godwin!