Want to fix the climate? Fix the corruption of expertise first

Firs published in the Chronicle Journal Monday April 25, 2016
by Jason MacLean

After the US Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizen United, the corrupting influence of money in politics was supposed to be an exceptionally American problem. But it turns out that it’s very much a Canadian problem, too. Worse still, the corruption of money in politics is trumped by the corruption of expertise. Worst of all, the corruption of expertise is at the root of every important public policy issue, including climate change.

First, follow the money. In Ontario, the premier and key cabinet ministers preside over exclusive dinners and one-on-one meetings with industry insiders. The price? If you’re invited, try $5,000 per plate or more. During a recent dinner, the Liberals raised roughly $3 million.

In B.C., 10 select guests recently paid $10,000 each to mingle with premier Christy Clark at a dinner hosted by Simon Fraser University Chancellor Anne Giardini.

The Alberta NDP government recently cancelled a $1,000-per-plate dinner with Premier Notley when event details surfaced. This followed on the heels of revelations about Premier Notley’s role as a guest speaker at a private, $10,000-per-plate fundraising dinner recently organized by the Ontario NDP. And so it goes.

But the problem extends beyond one-off dinners. Top cabinet ministers at Queen’s Park, for instance, are assigned annual fundraising targets of $250,000. In some cases, $500,000.

The political response to the recent and (for Canada) extraordinary spotlight shone on these technically legal but ethically unconscionable activities has been remarkable. Premier Wynne, for instance, has pirouetted from her initial position that dinners for donors is just “part of the democratic process” to her commitment to introduce legislation this spring “to end corporate and union donations.”

That’s all well and good, but it’s hardly sufficient, as Premier Wynne has not committed to limiting financial contributions to third-party groups, let alone third-party spending. But even if we do clean up campaign finance rules, there is an even more corrosive form of corruption in Canadian politics. Call it the corruption of “expertise” or, in a nod to the rites of spring, “inside baseball.”

The corruption of expertise receives little attention in Canada. Who remembers the revelation on the eve of the federal election that Liberal campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier was providing advice to TransCanada Corp. about how to lobby the government on behalf of its controversial Energy East oil pipeline all the while trying to elect Justin Trudeau? So far, Mr. Gagnier is batting .1000.

Or take Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent appointment of Serge Dupont as Deputy Clerk of the Privy Council Office and Associate Cabinet Secretary. As Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Canada in 2011, Mr. Dupont orchestrated a public relations campaign promoting the Northern Gateway oil pipeline and the oil sands as an “urgent matter of national interest.”

Why does this matter? And what does it have to do with Canadian climate change policy?

In a word, everything. Expertise, and the special interests and ideology underlying expertise, exerts as much influence on politics as money. Maybe even more. In his brilliant book What is Government Good At? A Canadian Answer, political scientist Donald Savoie argues that “the public interest is formed less by evidence-based policy and more by elites talking to one another”.

Public policy, argues Savoie, is made by our leaders’ courtiers – the Gagniers and Duponts of the world – speaking in hushed tones and behind closed doors to lobbyists, former public servants, heads of friendly industry associations, and CEOs of large corporations. This kind of inside baseball permeates all aspects of government, including policy and regulation.

“The larger public interest is all too often lost,” concludes Savoie. Our stalled climate change policy – federal-provincial conflict, preferential regulations for oil pipeline proponents, steadily rising greenhouse gas emissions – is a case in point.

While the handwringing over money in Canadian politics is welcome, it will soon fade into the white noise of political outrage. Moving forward, we need to counter the insidious influence of inside baseball. Until we make the game of public policy open, accessible, and attractive to more Canadians, insiders and outsiders alike, the public interest will continue to be sacrificed to short-term special interests.

As I write this column, 2016 is already the hottest year on record, with January, February and March each passing marks set in 2015, according to new data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Meanwhile, world leaders are gathering at the UN to sign the Paris climate change agreement concluded in December. The expert plans that the signatory countries have developed are nowhere ambitious enough to reach the agreement’s lofty – and urgent – goals. Neither do those plans extend beyond the year 2030.

Expertise alone isn’t going to be enough. The rest of us must get in the game.

Jason MacLean teaches environmental law at Lakehead University and writes here monthly.