Spinning the Committees

July 1st, 2018

Politicians are expected to master every file.  Some of them struggle to do so.  Some struggle to master any of them.  Some master none.

The problem is breadth;  too much going on for any one person to master the sum of it.  It’s what the British call the CBE Problem:  Can’t be Everywhere.

With too much to track, files are prioritized.  Quickly solvable problems are dispatched quickly, especially if they involve windfalls of money, signing ceremonies, scenic backdrops, Quebec or Justin Bieber.

Conversely, problems requiring masses of time are low priority.  Regulatory problems and those featuring bureaucratic reorganizations are very low priority.  The problem of reorganizing regulatory bureaucracy?  That’s at rock bottom.

Usually, when the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) is busying itself by influencing public officials, their defence of their thousands of staff and the bloated, self-serving status quo is a pretty predictable affair.  Let’s say they’re meeting an MP named Ted.  First, Ted gets soft soap, as;

“Hi, how you doin?  Boy, I love meeting MPs, but its great to meet you especially, really great, it really is.  I’ve been hoping for this meeting Ted -may I call you Ted?  You know Ted, we’ve got a problem here….”

Then CSA gives Ted a series of hilariously over-inflated figures to signal the importance of CSA. 

“Did you know, Ted, that CSA is responsible for over 3,000 laws in Canada?”  They’re not, by the way, thats CSA propaganda, but few MP’s are likely to know the real number.  “And to manage all that legislation on behalf of Parliament, we run hundreds of technical committees, employing thousands of highly specialized technical experts, contributing tens of thousands of hours of work on your behalf.”  See how this goes?  “We’re just really committed to safety, to wellness, -to Canada!  We’ve dedicated our professional lives to bettering our communities and our world, Ted.  That’s how much we care.” 

Parliamentary offices should kit themselves with airplane sickness bags, I think. 

Members of Parliament like Ted hear the CSA song-and-dance pretty regularly and, through repetition, the indispensability of CSA, and the unavoidable expenses of all their legislating, are reinforced to a sort of conventional wisdom, a common knowledge on the Hill.  In this, bilge becomes fact, and facts are unassailable, so CSA is untouchable.

This is the accepted landscape for any of our first CSA discussions with an MP.  What’s our pitch?

First we secure the meeting, which is a tougher job than you might think.  We don’t have CSA’s army of taxpayer paid lobbyists, so it takes time.  Parliamentary offices are spread across several Ottawa buildings, but these feel mostly like the same building with different labels on.  The Confederation Building for instance, contains a typical collection of MPs offices.  Imagine a James Bond film, circa 1965.  Yes, that’s the decor.  And the lighting.  And the furniture.  They have these dark green, thoroughly uncomfortable, seemingly obligatory, sofas where hallways intersect.  They did architecture differently a century ago, featuring rooms for no reason and large, cold, intersection spaces -places sure to seem even more superfluous and cold were it not for these dark green, thoroughly uncomfortable, seemingly obligatory sofas festooning the place.

Then we meet, sometimes with a helping of soft soap.  Add compliments, say, or note the office.  Splendid sofas.  Then we ask about their riding.  That’s key, because at some point in the substance of discussion the MP is sure to regurgitate the CSA slurry he’s been fed for ages now.  Surely CSA is indispensable and these sky-high expenses are unavoidable, given the amount of work they do.  Right? 

“Well Ted,” we say, smiling politely, “it’s true that CSA drafts a lot of laws in Canada, and its true that these are amended, on average, once every five years.  And its also true that CSA runs committees for that purpose.”  So far, so good.  “Actually,” we say, “the CSA’s amendment of electrical law, for instance, engages more than 50 committees and subcommittees, and there are about a dozen people on each of these committees.”  That’s a lot of people.  “And they’re all volunteers,” something CSA neglects to mention. 

That’s how you set up the shot.  Here’s how you get it in the net;

“You know Ted, you’ve got a lot of experience with these committees yourself.”  Oh?  “Sure, I mean, how many committee members run your local constituency association?”  See?  “And they’re all volunteers, right?  Just like CSA, you’re not paying them either?”  Hmm, says Ted.  “Your party has constituency associations in every riding in Canada.  That’s 338 ridings, so your party is running 338 volunteer committees, each comprised of about a dozen people.  Right?”  Well, right.  “And just like CSA, these committees are only active once every few years, right?”  Right.

“So how many people does your party employ to run all those committees, comprised of all those volunteers?”  The answer folks, when they’re willing to say it, is one staffer.  “So how much does that cost per year?”  The answer, obviously, is peanuts.  It’s less than $100k in salary plus benefits.  And that brings us back to CSA.

The MP is almost always appalled at the parallels between their own party’s organization and CSA’s organization.  A large Federal party will employ one FTE (full time equivalent employee) for each fifty FTE employed for equivalent purpose by CSA.  Put financially, their party spends less than $100k for each $10MM CSA spends to do the same job ($4.6MM in direct subsidy, plus ~$5MM in annual access sales, plus course sales, etc).

Inefficiencies on that scale are not indispensable or unavoidable.  They’re just CSA.

The reality is that the actual standards work that CSA is mandated to perform could be accomplished with a handful of people (a small handful, the hand size of an eight year old) and a relative pittance of money. 

And this isn’t hypothetical.  Structures just like CSA’s are managed by every party, everywhere in Canada, and all of it is verifiable by each party, and the reality of it is relatable to every MP of every party.

Facts folks, that’s how we win in Parliament.  All the pestering of pesky lobbyists and all the smoothness, sweetness and comforting reassurance that CSA’s willing to have taxpayers pay for can’t conceal to MPs the simple fact that running committees isn’t complicated, doesn’t require thousands of staff or millions of dollars to accomplish.

With that insight, MPs master this file.