Sustainable, healthy, liberal democracies are not pure democracies. They need a number of formal checks and balances to temper the tyranny of the majority that a pure democracy can produce, and to guard against elected politicians going wild. The traditional way to do this has been to create a few internal institutions that are ‘above the fray’- isolated from political pressures, electoral cycles, and the dictates of the here and now (Dror 2000). Typical Canadian examples are the Supreme Court, the Office of the Auditor General and the Public Service Commission.
To be effective, the super bureaucrats at the helm of these institutions must be seen and accepted by citizens as legitimate, impartial, and technically competent. Gilles Paquet has pointed this out about the judiciary in the last issue of www.optimumonline.ca (Paquet 2004b). These essential qualities are ensured by particularly taxing procedures of appointment for these officials and by efforts to keep the appointees from being beholden to the government after their selection (e.g. in terms of the length of appointment and remuneration).
As our society has become more complex, as knowledge, power, and resources are becoming widely distributed throughout society, as advances in science and technology are blurring sectoral and national boundaries, and as sudden external threats (like terrorism or SARS) materialize, the governance of our societies has not only become more complex but also more contested. It is not unusual now to be confronted with issues about which reasonable people can hold different views. This is reflected in the greater complexity of the challenges faced by super bureaucrats like the Auditor General (Brodtrick 2004), and the judiciary.
At the same time, super bureaucrats have become more cheeky and invasive.
The Supreme Court asked Radio-Canada to pay $673,153 to Gilles Néron, a lobbyist, as compensation for defamation even though the statement made by Radio-Canada about Gilles Néron (La Chambre des notaires du Québec’s public relations person) was an excerpt from his own letter to Radio-Canada. The basis for this so-called ‘defamation’ was that the “whole letter” had not been quoted, even though the other elements in the letter would in no way have modified the veracity of the facts that were mentioned. This decision can be interpreted as a significant limitation of the right of the public to know, as well as the granting of a great deal of power to lobbyists to determine what can and cannot be made public about them (Venne 2004).
Canada’s Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, made the headlines with her statement about the so-called $100M sponsorship scandal by saying that “all the rules in the book were broken”. She shed the traditional image of the office – that of nameless, faceless bureaucrat – and quickly became a folk hero, even though experts have suggested that it was a gross overstatement (Chenier 2004; Paquet 2004a).