Saturday, April 08, 2006

New Order

Brian Laghi is much impressed with the new sense of order and direction coming out of the Harper PMO, where decisions actually get made instead of being drifted towards by default.

And if this article is any indication, Stephen Harper is disproving the Peter Principle by demonstrating that one's apparent level of competence can actually rise with a promotion to the top job:

It has been two months since Mr. Harper took the reins, enough time for the PMO to demonstrate a number of personality and management characteristics that will define the government.

Chief among them is that the new shop is deeply involved in the day-to-day functioning of cabinet and members of Parliament. Mr. Harper has created a disciplined environment where almost nothing leaks and little or nothing is said or done without the PMO's approval. It is an approach that has both pleased and rankled and staff, who are delighted with government's strong focus, but not so happy with the sluggish pace of getting things done.

Second, and perhaps more surprisingly, the man who has been characterized as a sometimes surly pol with a reputation for aloofness, has begun to show a lighter touch. It's a matter of degree, his supporters and critics say, but Mr. Harper has taken to phoning despondent MPs to raise their spirits, tells jokes about himself in cabinet meetings and has lost some of the awkward social behaviour that marked his time as Opposition leader.


Unlike Mr. Martin's, Mr. Harper's management style is more solitary, more direct and less reliant on outside voices.

“There's not a lot of small talk,” a source said. “You get 10 minutes to get briefed on something. You're in and you give him the basic information that he needs. He likes it crisp and to the point.”

In contrast to former Liberal prime minister Jean Chr├ętien, Mr. Harper likes paper. Mr. Chr├ętien was known for asking his staff to boil down advice to one standard-size sheet of paper. Sources say Mr. Harper prefers a heftier dossier to read before officials speak with him.

“He wants to look at it in advance, and then a no-nonsense briefing and then, ‘Here's the advice.' There's not a lot of time for small talk and wandering around aimlessly,” the source said.

Mr. Martin was far more discursive. Long conversations were the norm, and the PMO would often set an issue aside for a day or two and come back to it later.

Not so with Mr. Harper.

One example, according to sources, was the way in which he made the decision to vote with the United States at the United Nations recently to allow Palestinian refugee women and children to return to their homes.

The Prime Minister made the call quickly and with little consultation, sources said, eschewing the kind of diplomatic balance that has often marked the Canadian approach to the Middle East. On the one hand, a quick move could offend a voting bloc in Canada, such as Arab groups. On the other, it demonstrates that Mr. Harper meant what he said in Afghanistan recently, that Canada should not be afraid to be a leader in the world.

Because so much power has become vested in the PMO, how it is run will affect how the rest of government--Parliament and public service alike--adjust to meet its management style.

As much as the man puts a stamp on the office, the office also puts a stamp on the man. Expect to hear less about the need to take power away from the PMO; its exercise is simply too valuable to give away without overriding good cause.

Political scientists and opposition politicians will just have to keep grumbling about the centralization of authority in the Prime Minister's Office.

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