If the name isn’t familiar to you, it should be: Mr. Himelfarb used to be Clerk of the Privy Council, in the last half of Jean Chrétien’s term as Prime Minister and during the Paul Martin era. So it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about how Canadian governance is supposed to work.
Which is why his latest essay, entitled “Going, Going, Gone : Dismantling The Progressive State,” is worth a look. In it, Mr. Himelfarb attempts to come to grips with Stephen Harper’s real agenda for his term as Prime Minister. It was never hidden; in fact, Monte Solberg laid it out in a column from which Mr. Himelfarb quotes extensively. And to which he adds:
The federal government seems to be retreating to a much narrower Constitutional set of responsibilities. Gone, apparently, is the cooperative, and yes sometimes combative, federalism that built the progressive state.
Mr. Himelfarb, to his credit, then attempts to defend the “progressive” system as he knows it, explaining the roles that various programs like the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, the National Welfare Council, and other advisory bodies that have felt the budget axe. Most interestingly, he defends that quasi-governmental organism known as the NGO:
Essential to civil society are the many non-governmental organizations that give voice to people otherwise not heard, including future generations who will inherit the consequences of what we decide. These organizations, which so often challenge and criticize, are never much loved by governments. They always struggle for survival. Decades ago governments decided to stop core funding, to limit funding to the purchase of services, to make it hard for charitable organizations to engage in advocacy. But they survived, even if weaker. This budget and some of the chilling rhetoric around it takes the next step, as environmentalists are treated as a bigger problem than climate change and non-governmental organizations are warned that they better be careful about their advocacy if they want the advantages of charitable status. This and the cut to the small but effective Court Challenges Program in a previous budget rob our democracy of the dissenting voices that give it strength.
What’s actually refreshing about this essay is that, unlike most of the government’s critics, Mr. Himelfarb is willing to mount a proactive defense of modern government as it has evolved over the past thirty-odd years. It may be that said critics merely assumed that such a defense wasn’t really necessary; a progressive government, in their eyes, may well be a “self-evident” need. Or it may be simply that their conception of how government works is so fixed into the progressive, collective psyche that they simply shrink from attempting such a defense, for fear they may lose their intended audience.
Whatever. You only need to look at these efforts from Carol Goar and Elizabeth Payne to realize that the “feel-good” progressivism that Mr. Solberg wants to eradicate is still considered to be their trump card in debate. It is good of Mr. Himelfarb to remind everyone that it isn’t.