When I was a student hip deep in the study of third-year politics, I remember attending a class on public administration. I cannot tell you the date and time, but I recall one particular lecture that covered a subject that has stuck with me to this day. It was a simple, anecdotal monologue that was impactful enough that I dedicated a full chapter of my Commonwealth free trade re-release (and an article to the Daily Globe) to the topic.
The professor, in explaining resistance to change within a bureaucracy, described a tactic often employed against political masters. He even gave the phenomenon a name that will take some explaining if you are not a Canadian of a certain vintage.
He called it “Killing the Friendly Giant”.
In the mid 1980’s, the incoming Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney was confronted with a difficult fiscal position. Between 1980 and 1984, the Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (father of the current Canadian PM), consistently spent more than it took in by a hefty margin. At times, it was spending C$1.40 for every dollar of revenue.
The challenge of the Mulroney government was to get a grip on spending, and no part of the federal government’s apparatus was immune – including the public broadcaster, the CBC.
Like everywhere else, the CBC was tasked with finding savings in its budget. But, budget cuts are anathema to civil servants. Budget cuts strike at the very heart of a civil servant’s power base. In asking bureaucrats to cut, you are asking them to diminish their footprint. Yet, you are a public ‘servant’, so you really do not have a choice in the matter – or do you?
Like the BBC, the CBC aired children’s programming. There was the Canadianized version of Sesame Street, a show called ‘Mr. Dressup’, and another called ‘The Friendly Giant’, which was – as the name suggests – about a giant that was friendly. Of all these programs airing at that time, ‘The Friendly Giant’ was the most popular. Children from across the country would tune in every weekday morning, eager to watch the mild mannered ‘giant’ (played by Bob Homme) interact with puppets and tell stories. Kids loved it, and so did their parents. Many of them could count on their child being quiet and well-behaved for at least fifteen minutes each mid-morning.
But it did not last.
In 1985, CBC executives poured through their multi-billion dollar budget with a fine toothed comb, examining every expenditure from martini lunches at Hy’s Steakhouse to paperclips and staples. In their expert opinion, the answer to financial sustainability meant programming changes. Thus, the long running ‘Friendly Giant’ would raise up the drawbridge to his castle, never to lower again.
It should come as no surprise that a flood of mail poured into the offices of MP’s in the government benches, as angry moms and dads – spurred on by their distraught pre-schoolers – accused the politicians as being hard-hearted and caring nothing for the youth of the nation. To this day, the CBC denies that the cancellation was due to budget cuts[i], but the message was sent – if you force us to do something we don’t want to do, we will do it in the most politically painful way possible so you don’t ask again.
This phenomenon acts itself out in different ways. Transit authorities in large Canadian cities, like many other places, operate accessible buses in order to accommodate passengers with special needs and mobility issues. In 1998, the Ontario government reduced transfers to Ottawa’s OC Transpo, which – in turn – declared that the ParaTranspo service would be affected.[ii]
Recently, the newly elected Ontario government, in an effort to get a handle on the province’s fiscal problems, declared a moratorium on non-essential travel for public servants. In the case of the Ministry of Education, that was interpreted as requiring the cancellation of a writing workshop related to developing curriculum specific to the needs of the province’s indigenous community (until the Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson, gave a statement explicitly exempting that activity from the directive). Closer to where I live, a manager from the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry went so far as to suggest that the directive would prevent him from coming to a local government council to report on matters, thereby prompting the suggestion that the local government pay the mileage for the bureaucrat to attend![iii]
The current situation evolving (or devolving, depending on your point of view) over Brexit is simply the latest manifestation of the same tactic – if you force us to do something we really, REALLY don’t want to do, it will cost you.
The Chequers White Paper, the stated influence of Olly Robbins, the allegations of David Davis and Steve Baker of a shadow negotiation team that usurped DExEu, the ‘take it or leave it’ ultimatum given to Cabinet members, the allegations of ‘Brexit in name only’ and the brinksmanship within the walls of Westminster all point to the same strategy.
Civil servants who have spent their careers building up the EU, building toward a ‘United States of Europe’, see Brexit as an existential threat – to themselves and their prospects. The referendum result and the position of the government are clear and cannot be fought. That only leaves one alternative – make as big a bollocks of the whole thing as you can so as to dissuade their political masters of the whole thing.
Sadly enough, based on the drama emanating from Westminster and 10 Downing Street, it is not altogether clear that the strategy is not working as it was intended.