In Ottawa, two people below the prime minister hold the power. They are his chief of staff and the clerk of the Privy Council. Compared to these guys, cabinet ministers are small players.
Until recently, Stephen Harper, Sun King of the great north, wouldn’t even allow most of his cabinet ministers to answer questions in the House of Commons. His then-House Leader, Peter Van Loan, was directed to respond to most queries by attacking the questioner.
One would think, given the degree of importance of the chief of staff and the clerk, that the public would or should be familiar with them. But there’s not one in a hundred Canadians who even know their names.
This month, in a major shakeup that had broad ramifications for the government, the clerk, Kevin Lynch, was replaced. We don’t know whether he was pushed out or left voluntarily.
Rather than delve into that story, we in the media fixated on Rubygate — that critical question of whether or not backbench MP Ruby Dhalla was a meanie to her mother’s Filipina caregivers.
The media’s focus on this soap opera — Dhalla has a shapely body and wears spike heels — was something to behold. It’s like we all descended from the Daily Mirror of London’s formerly-famed Fleet Street. What’s next? Is everybody in the nation’s capital going to be under the microscope for how they treat their domestic help? What if, for instance, some clearly negligent minister of the Crown doesn’t leave out enough potato chips for his or her babysitter? What will happen then?
Granted, Dhalla was the Liberals’ multiculturalism critic and is of immigrant stock herself. So the accusations that came her way, charges she strongly denies, were meritorious of some coverage — especially by the tabloid media. But compared to the power shift in the Prime Minister’s Office, which was of 20 times the importance, Rubygate was a laugher.
The root of the problem, why the media got it upside-down, lies in the way they cover Ottawa, which is upside-down. In Ottawa, the power lies in the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office, the government’s executive branch. But they are housed in the sealed-off Langevin building. No journalists get near them. Instead, they congregate Parliament Hill, the legislative branch that caters to the Sun King’s every whim.
By contrast, in Washington the media have quarters in the executive branch, the White House. Their focus is chiefly there, as opposed to Capitol Hill. Americans therefore tend to get to know who their chief power players, the Karl Roves of the world, happen to be. Here, because our media still hold to an archaic system of coverage, we chase nannies.