Monday, May 18, 2009

Hill Times: Power and influence in political Ottawa: a primer

Power and influence in political Ottawa: a primer

Power is situational or context-dependent. In the political arena, power depends heavily on the appearance of power. Others believe that you have it, and will use it.

By W.T. Stanbury,
The Hill Times,
May 18,2009

Ottawa has been called "power town." The news media are full of stories about the Prime Minister's latest use (or alleged abuse) of power, and of who is the "power behind the throne" in this era of court government. Many columns are devoted to who is "hot" and who is "not" in terms of having influence.

The announcement of the retirement of Kevin Lynch as clerk of the Privy Council is a good time to reflect on the nature of both power and influence in Canadian politics. Columnist John Ivison (National Post, May 8, 2009) observed: "Mr. Lynch has been this country's senior public servant for the past three years and has arguably had more impact on the day-to-day lives of Canadians over the course of a distinguished 33-year career than anyone currently working in government."

In this piece I try to distinguish between power and influence in the political arena—no easy task in a democracy.

The pursuit and exercise of power is central to politics and to government. If politics is not about gaining, exercising and retaining power, what is it about?

I argue that power is the ability of an individual or group to make things happen so as to achieve (or partially achieve) their goals even in the face of concerted opposition. Power can also be negative—the power to prevent others from getting what they want. In much the same vein, it is argued that power is "best understood in terms of command and control. It is either the capacity to make others do as you wish (the command function) or to reorder the environment around you (the control function)," (Jon Meacham, Newsweek, Jan. 5, 2009).

"In his copy of Lenin's works, Stalin underlined his predecessor's [concept of power]: 'The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is power won and supported by the force of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, power not bound by any laws.'" (Gary Saul Morson, The New Criterion, March 2009). It is harder to find a better definition of power as unbridled force—except perhaps Mao's claim that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

In politics and policy-making, power is both an important tool and an organizing device. Power in the form of the exercise of legal authority (which ultimately involves coercion) is literally necessary to make democratic governments function. Government requires the visible hand; they are not a spontaneous order.

Political power in a democracy is usually based on the person's formal position which comes with a certain amount of delegated authority. It comes with a list of responsibilities, some of which effectively mandate decisions on certain matters.

The essence of state power—even in a democracy—is that it involves the legitimate use of coercion exercised through taxation, regulation, enforcement of the criminal law, and a host of other legal powers. That's why so many seek to "climb the greasy pole" (Disraeli's phrase) to become prime minister. There is no question that the PM is the single most powerful person in Canada's federal government.

Persons with power necessarily exercise influence in the sense of being able—in some degree at least—to change the environment in which they function. A person with influence need not have power in the sense of legal authority. See below.

In a democracy, power is delegated from the people to their elected representatives who make laws (and regulations) delegating to a person (or group of persons) a domain of authority. The exercise of that authority is usually subject to certain constraints, e.g., the right of appeal, the requirement to make periodic reports on the exercise of authority, the auditing of accounts, etc. Major decisions may be the result of the interaction of several persons exercising power.

A great deal of power in a democracy arises from the exercise of discretion. In general, senior officials (and some at the middle level) in the federal government are expected to exercise considerable discretion in carrying out their responsibilities. Thus they exercise power over how policies operate in practice.

Power is situational or context-dependent. In the political arena, power depends heavily on the appearance of power— others believe that you have it, and will use it. A former U.S. secretary of labour put it this way: "Power is not to be frittered away on lost causes. Like much of the power in Washington, presidential power derives from the appearance of having it – of being able to make things happen. A president can lose authority simply by exerting it without effect" (Robert Reich, Lost in the Cabinet, 1997, pp. 239-240).

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) believed that the will to power is central to human behaviour: "My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension." I have no idea how widespread is the will to power, but I have no doubt that it is extremely common among politicians. We must ask, power for what? "There is a distinction between the pursuit of power for domination and subjugation and the use of power to make possible the journey toward what Winston Churchill called the "broad, sunlit uplands," (Meacham, 2009).

Why do men and women seek political power? Suppose we start from the premise that everyone comes to Ottawa to "do good" as they see it. But each person could do good far from Ottawa (or any other capital city) by leading an exemplary personal and professional life in the private sector and also possibly by exhorting others to do the same by the spoken or written word. So why do they come to Ottawa? The answer is that they want to do good on a much larger scale. That requires the power of government.

There are, however, many—often conflicting—visions of the good. Thus there is conflict among those seeking power and those trying to retain it. In a democracy, the legitimate modes of conflict are spelled out in law and also, albeit more vaguely, in custom. So guns and bombs are ruled out, but harsh language, false promises, and intense competition in elections are permitted (or tolerated).

Influence occurs indirectly—largely through the actions of those with formal power. Persons with formal power use it to act directly to make others do what they want. In contrast, in broad terms, a person's influence appears to stem from his ability to persuade those with legal authority (formal power) to do something they might not otherwise do. A popular novelist argues that, in a democracy power is influence. Only in the dictatorships can raw power alone exist within the law. Non-elected power in a democracy therefore, lies in the ability to influence the ability to influence the elected machine. This may be achieved by the mobilization of public opinion, campaigns in the media, persistent lobbying, or outright financial contributions. But in its purest form such influence may simply be quiet advice to the holders of elected office from a source of unchallenged experience, integrity, and wisdom. It is called "the quiet word" (Frederick Forsyth, Icon, Bantam Books,1996, pp. 192-193).

The best example of the difference between influence and power was/is Karl Marx—a scribbler whose ideas have plagued the world for 150 years! (The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848; Das Kapital in 1867.) Where would Lenin (a man who exercised real power, over life and death for millions) have been without Marx to help him rationalize the dictatorship of the proletariat?

The ability of an adviser to persuade a person with formal power—and thereby exercise influence—may come from several things: (a) The supply of information (more, better, faster). Recall the adage that information is power; (b) The supply of ideas for policy-making that political leaders believe will be attractive to voters; (c) The supply of rhetoric—democratic governments run on words and the arts of persuasion. Speech writers are not passive wordsmiths for their principal. A speech writer can give evocative labels to otherwise obscure policies and so make them more persuasive; and (d) The capacity to implement effectively the legal authority of a decision-maker. There is potentially a big gap between a policy stated in law and how it functions "on the ground." Effective implementation is an art and science, so the person who can do it well will have real influence—largely because of how he/she exercises their judgment in translating policy into operational program. (e)The exercise of discretion by a person with some formal authority. In general, senior officials (and some at the middle level) in the federal government are expected to exercise considerable discretion in carrying out their responsibilities. Thus they have real influence on how policies function.

The extent of the influence of an adviser depends on several factors: the power held by the person being advised; the importance of the issues for which the advisor provides advice; the frequency with which the advice is followed and is deemed to be valuable; the willingness of the advisee to recognize the value of the advice he receives; the ability of the advisee to utilize potentially conflicting advice; and the timeliness with which advice is rendered.

Influence can be a nebulous matter. Recall J.M. Keynes' (1883-1946) famous line: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

In some cases, new ideas do not require action by politicians or other holders of formal power to have a significant impact. Think of the case of the "green revolution." The power of the research-based ideas came from the millions of decisions of individual farmers. (I do not want to ignore, however, the efforts of governments to diffuse these new ideas, or the decision to put taxpayer dollars into the research behind the new ideas.) An engineer or scientist can devise ways of harnessing the forces of nature to create machines and weapons of great power, e.g., hydro-electric dams, and nuclear weapons. Usually, however, it is a political leader (or collectivity) that makes the decision to convert the idea/design into operational terms. They exercise power in a direct sense.

I conclude by noting that The Hill Times (Dec. 22, 2008) list of the "100 most influential people in government and politics in Ottawa" consisted of 24 politicians (21 federal including seven in opposition parties, and three provincial); 13 political staffers, including three working for an opposition party; 11 lobbyists and consultants, including four heads of trade associations; 18 public servants and officials (including six DMs); 16 persons in the news media and one organization (; 11 business people; and five other public figures (including the chief justice of Supreme Court of Canada, the Governor General, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, and one man of ideas, Malcolm Gladwell).

W.T. Stanbury is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia. He conducted research on party and election finance for the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Finance (Lortie Commission).

Letter to the Editor: Power and Influence

Re: Power and influence by William Stanbury

Excellent and insightful piece by William Stanbury on Canada's democracy run amok under the opiate of Power (quite literally) especially under the Harper government. As they say, the best place to drill for oil, isn't in Alberta, but rather Ottawa, as per this exercise in drilling for oil on the income trust tax, as reported in the Globe and Mail on November 2, 2006 in an article entitled "The income trust crackdown. The inside story":

"High-profile directors and CEOs, meanwhile, had approached Mr. Flaherty personally to express their concerns: Many felt they were being pressed into trusts because of their duty to maximize shareholder value, despite their misgivings about the structure. Paul Desmarais Jr., the well-connected chairman of Power Corp. of Canada, even railed against trusts in a conversation with Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a trip to Mexico."

Power and influence indeed.

This is what passes for public consultation under the Harper regime. It's no wonder that Harper fought so hard to avoid holding public hearings on the income trust matter, for fear that his tax leakage lie would be revealed for the fraudulent policy argument that it is, and for which the Finance Committee held as its number one recommendation that:

"It is imperative that a democratic government be as transparent
as possible when levying a new tax so that it can be held to
account by its citizens. The Committee, therefore, recommends
that the federal government release the data and methodology it
used to estimate the amount of federal tax revenue loss caused
by the income trust sector."

So where is it? Not the proof tax leakage, as much as Canada's democracy and due process?

Brent Fullard
President and CEO
Canadian Association of Income Trust Investors / Taxpayers


Dr Mike said...

"The essence of state power—even in a democracy—is that it involves the legitimate use of coercion exercised through taxation, regulation, enforcement of the criminal law, and a host of other legal powers."

"Coercion thru taxation"----certainly sounds like the Tax fairness Plan alright.

In the immortal words of Nancy Kerrigan , "why me".

Dr Mike

Anonymous said...

Dear Reliable Brent - there is always a complete and knowledgeable basis of facts from you - with honesty, integrity, kindness and with the stamp of legitimacy known as 'CANADA'.