To put it in two words - integrity matters.
In April of 2009, the governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney, announced that the bank would be holding its benchmark interest rate steady for the next 15 months. Around the world, the reaction was instantaneous and universal: “Ah. I guess that means the Bank of Canada will be holding interest rates steady for the next 15 months.”
When the governor says he will do something, that is, people believe him. That credibility is partly personal, partly institutional. It is a reputation that has been earned over many years, under both Carney and his predecessors: A Bank of Canada governor does not make promises he will not keep, or say things he knows to be untrue. More than an expectation, it is almost a definition.
Contrast that with his counterparts in politics, even in the highest office. Were the prime minister — any prime minister, at least of recent times — to announce the time of day, most people would disbelieve it. That, too, is a matter of reputation. Prime Ministers have told such whoppers of late — have gone to such escalating efforts to convince the public that this time they really meant it, only to betray them yet again — that their position has been greatly weakened.
They have institutional power. They do not have the broader power that comes with credibility, of being able to shape events not directly, but indirectly, through the expectations and actions of the public. The governor can assume the public’s trust, and plan policy accordingly. A prime minister, having squandered the public’s trust, cannot.
Of course, a Bank of Canada governor — like other independent office-holders, the Auditor General, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Privacy Commissioner, and so on — does not have to campaign for election, or worry that he will be bumped aside by a more unscrupulous rival. Integrity of that kind, a politician might say, is a luxury he cannot afford.
And of course he would be right. Politics is about packs; the more ruthless, more disciplined, more pack-like of the parties mauls the others into submission. It prizes loyalty, not before all other virtues, but to their exclusion. We hunt together, the aspiring politician is told. Stick with the pack. And so each learns to scrape and smear, to manipulate and deceive, to promise one and threaten another, exactly as he is told.
That is how institutional power is won. Everyone understands that. What is interesting is what happens when power collides with principle: when the pack confronts, not another pack, but a determined individual of conscience. Nothing has prepared the pack for this. Faced with someone they cannot frighten, and who does not want anything from them, they are bewildered. All of their normal tactics and approaches are suddenly useless. All of their power turns to dust.
We are seeing this just now with regard to the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Various ministers of the government have been sent out to smear him, first claiming he was incompetent, then, when his numbers were borne out, that he was exceeding his authority. Through it all the PBO has kept digging, kept issuing his reports, kept demanding to see the data to which he is entitled under the law. And slowly, grudgingly, the government has been forced to yield.
But this is hardly the first time we have seen this play. When Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s report on the sponsorship scandal came out in 2004, accusing Liberal Party officials and friendly bureaucrats of conspiring to break “every rule in the book,” there were furtive attempts to go after her as well. Whisper campaigns were put about to the effect that she was out of control, that she was embarked on a “witch hunt.” We recall how that turned out. Whatever institutional power the government might have possessed, Fraser’s reputational power demolished it. It wasn’t even a fair fight.
The current government fared no better in its efforts to smear its own appointee as Auditor General, Michael Ferguson, after his report exposing mismanagement and fraudulent bookkeeping in the F-35 program. Even as the government was pretending to accept his findings the former parliamentary secretary to the Defence Minister, Laurie Hawn, was circulating a letter accusing the Auditor General of misunderstanding such basic terms as “acquisition,” of being unable to get basic facts right, even of being “disingenuous.” But the public knew whom to believe.
To be sure, part of the power of an auditor general or parliamentary budget officer, like that of a Bank of Canada governor, is institutional: they have certain powers and immunities that make it difficult for governments to intimidate or resist them. But much of it depends on the conduct of the individual in that office, and of its previous occupants — the reputation for independence and integrity they accumulate over the years.
And part of it is cultural. As cynical as we may be about our politicians, there is something ingrained in Canadians that honours the individual who will not “be reasonable,” will not “go along,” will not accept that “this is how it has always been done.” That isn’t true everywhere, but it is here. When the call to conscience comes, it finds an echo. But the reason we know what it sounds like is because we have had examples — because of those individuals in our past who have been willing to stand up, alone if necessary, against the power of the pack. I have in mind one such in particular.