I hesitated to write a post on the bombshell testimony of former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould. The facts are constantly evolving, much of it involves politics rather than law, and though we have benefitted from cogent legal commentary on the relevant legal principles, I should let that commentary stand rather than contribute my (underdeveloped) two cents on it. That said, I want to highlight an obvious but important institutional fact that arises out of this imbroglio, but that is somewhat orthogonal to the context of the Attorney General’s control over prosecutions. Madison might have been right to say that if men were angels, no government would be necessary; but it appears that governments can’t save us from the devil, either.
Much of the story of the 20th century was a victory of progressivism—by which I mean the school of thought that emphasizes “civil service” values, and technocratic government—over legalism. Roughly speaking, it was this underlying philosophy that occasioned a mass transfer of power from legislatures to the executive in Canada and the United States. Then, a further subdelegation occurred from the executive to experts, policy-makers, and tribunals within the executive branch. In theory, the incentive structure this set up was a trade-off of control for lower-cost, expert decision-making. Legislatures could not attend to the small, minute details of “post-roads,” for example, so they delegated that power to the executive and its agents to solve. The legislature lost control over the issue, but in return received better public policy decision-making, with a dash of independence to boot. The whole idea was to enable non-partisan decision-making at a lower cost that permitted better public policy.
While some still champion this rather mythical description of how politics and government work, a more hard-nosed reality emerges from the Jody Wilson-Raybould affair, putting aside the important principle of prosecutorial independence. We see a cabal of people in Ottawa—unelected, unaccountable—carrying the balance of power. These people, ostensibly surrogates of the Prime Minister, say that they do not want to talk about legalities. They want to line up op-eds in newspapers to provide cover fire for their humdrum attitude toward law. They don’t like certain laws if they were not adopted by a Parliament in which their party controlled the majority of the seats. They do all of this, apparently, to save their electoral prospects. In other words, it appears that some of the most powerful people in the country, in the Prime Minister’s office, are driven by the incentive of electioneering rather than the law.
This might be like calling the sky blue. Obviously politicians want to be elected. But so much of our system—and the philosophy of progressivism that informs attitudes of deference towards legislatures and administrative actors—runs on the idea that there are these islands of expertise and independence in a system otherwise tainted by politics. But with the rise of the PMO, the mass delegation of legislative power to Ministers, and the concomitant rise of influence of those like Michael Wernick in the Privy Council Office, experts are always subordinate to politics.
What’s more we have to be realistic about who we empower when we delegate power. Formally, of course, it’s the executive: but underneath the veil, it’s Gerry Butts, or whoever is next in line. The whole project of independent decision-making, even parts of the project that are protected by constitutional principles, is always up for grabs in a system in which the primary incentive is electoral success driven by apparatchiks.
Some might draw the opposite inference from the whole affair. After all, Jody Wilson-Raybould emerges as a champion of the Rule of Law. She successfully stood up to pressure from the Prime Minister and his subordinates. But one person is a thin reed on which to rest our hopes for good institutions. The regularity of scandals in Canadian politics is just a symptom of the broader reality that the incentives structure of the system—perhaps of every political system—is towards a greater concentration of power at the expense of other ideas: independent decision-making, expert decision-making, even the Constitution or the laws. If Jody Wilson-Raybould was a victim of those incentives here, perhaps we should rethink the mass delegation of powers to those—like members of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal—who have no constitutional principles to protect them.
There is a lot of nuance to the entire affair because of the role of the Attorney General in the Westminster parliamentary system. I cannot speak to the doctrine governing that issue. But it is enough for me to say that there are no angels, not even in government. The SNC-Lavalin affair might make us rethink the extent to which we entrust governmental actors with power, even with the best intentions.