Royal commissions were once fodder for stand-up comics though the memory is bitter-sweet. The notion seems quaint now. Governments confronted difficult issues by convening public hearings and reaching for consensus. Now they announce policy change on the drive in from the airport at Davos, Switzerland and shoehorn it into a 452-page omnibus budget bill. At least, that’s what the Prime Minister did when he raised eligibility under Old Age Security to 67 years in 2012.
So it’s with genuine nostalgia that readers will enjoy Commissions of Inquiry and Policy Change, an affectionate tribute to the consensus politics of yesteryear. It mattered. Editors note that when the Literary Review of Canada compiled a list of the country’s 100 Most Important Books, six were reports of commissions.
It was an 1889 commission that urged the introduction of Labour Day as the first secular holiday “in view of the good already accomplished” by trade unions. It was a 1929 Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting that led to creation of the CBC, and a 1938 commission that cleared the prisons of patronage and “inhumane discipline”.
The bungled Air India investigation; secret payments by a German arms dealer; a fraud ring in the Department of Public Works – all were uncovered by commissions of inquiry. The phenomenon is celebrated by editors Gregory Inwood and Carolyn Johns, both of Ryerson University’s Department of Politics and Public Administration.
Commissions of Inquiry analyzes ten modern inquiries held from 1957 to 2008. They dealt in matters of life and death, money and equality, scandal and discrimination. A favourite remains the 1982 Macdonald Commission that gave us free trade though most Canadians never asked for it. “Ironically, it de-legitimized commissions of inquiry to some extent as sites of public consultation and democratic tools by ignoring much of what civil society told the commission,” authors note.
Donald Macdonald was a former Liberal finance minister. The commission was “widely seen as a consolation prize for his frustrated leadership ambitions”. They paid him $800 a day, an extraordinary fee in the midst of a grinding recession. “His ungracious response was to point out that he could earn twice that in his Bay Street law practice,” Commissions recalls.
Macdonald ran up a $22 million budget conducting hearings in 32 towns and cities nationwide. It was the most expensive, most grandiose inquiry in Canadian history that concluded the country should take “a leap of faith” into free trade with the U.S. Virtually every non-business witness opposed free trade at Macdonald’s hearings, but the game was set: “The Canadian government embarked upon a policy choice that lacked widespread popular support.”
In the free trade election of 1988 more than 7.6 million voters – 57 percent of the electors – opposed a treaty with the U.S. that was ratified anyway. Yet the work of the Macdonald Commission was far-reaching: even those who opposed free trade had to acknowledge their voice had been raised and the question had been fairly settled.
At least it was better than hearing about it on the way from the airport in Davos.
By Holly Doan
Commissions of Inquiry and Policy Change: A Comparative Analysis, edited by Gregory Inwood and Carolyn Johns; University of Toronto Press; 352 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-15724; $24.47