The politics of policy

MISC conference keynote speaker Jim Flaherty, Canada’s Minister of Finance. / Photo: Owen Egan
MISC conference keynote speaker Jim Flaherty, Canada’s Minister of Finance. / Photo: Owen Egan

MISC conference takes a frank look at policy-making in Canada

By Pascal Zamprelli

“We will come out of this. As we come out it, we will come out strongly, stronger than ever.”

This was the message Jim Flaherty, Canada’s Minister of Finance, delivered to a packed room at the Faculty Club on March 26, as he kicked off the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada’s (MISC) annual conference, Public Policy in Crisis? Understanding Policy-Making in Canada.

But it wasn’t all good-news sloganeering. Antonia Maioni, Director of MISC and Chair of the conference, appreciated the frank way in which the minister addressed the issue of governing through a crisis. “Ministers are constrained in what they can say, particularly since anything a finance minister says can move markets,” she explained.  “What was especially interesting in his speech was that he told the story of how he and his government lived through a crisis. He brought us back to follow him as he was going through that process, and I thought that was a really engaging and powerful narrative.”

The conference sought to bring together academics – mostly political scientists – and practitioners – including high-level bureaucrats and former ministers – to hash out answers to some pressing questions.How do crisis conditions affect the policy-making process? What role do evidence and public opinion play? Who is contributing to policy?

The idea, said Maioni, was to “bring people together from different areas and aspects on the problem or on the question, and to have them engage not only with the audience but with one another.”

And engage they did. Things started to heat up during the first panel, which looked at the role of evidence, and especially whether good politics trump good policy evidence. “Evidence can be a wide swath of different kinds of things,” said Maioni, “and I think that was brought home most clearly by Ian Brodie, who talked about political repercussions.”

Mr. Brodie, former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, raised more than one eyebrow when defending the government’s cuts to the GST, despite mounds of economic evidence suggesting it was a bad idea. “It worked in the sense that by the end of the 2005-06 campaign, voters identified the Conservative party as the party of lower taxes,” he said. “It worked in the sense that it helped us to win.”

As for the effects of crisis conditions on policy, the exchange suggested that they can potentially be positive or negative. Former Quebec Health Minister Philippe Couillard explained how it might differ depending on the type of crisis, as well as on your level of preparation. Crises can catch governments off guard, but they can also challenge policy-makers to come up with even more innovation.

For Maioni, these debates among people operating in different policy spheres is what made the conference both engaging and productive, providing a “reality check among themselves.” She praised the very fact that “McGill is a venue for this kind of high level discussion. It’s a big coup,” she said, “just to know that we can attract these kinds of people who really make a difference in Canadian public policy.”