6. Trashing the Arts (2007 – 2009)
The colleague before me at my office conference table had worked for the Department for many years and a good many of them as the officer responsible for managing grant applications from visual artists and museums. She was fuming. “You have lied to us. All the rumours are true. The program is being closed. You guys!” she raged in a sweeping accusation, referring to me and, vaguely, the rest of the department’s decision-making hierarchy. She stormed out of my office. I understood her frustration. I had been doing my best not to lie, but frankly I had been disingenuous, offering fuzzy descriptions of the status of the international arts promotion program, or Promart.
When I accepted the job as director of the cumbersomely named public diplomacy and international cultural relations program, I was not aware that one of my duties would be to shut Promart down. I did know that the 2007 “strategic review” was underway, a government mandated initiative to identify savings and eliminate activities that were not part of “core” services. However, I did not know, as I walked into my new office for the first time on that September morning, that the die had already been cast, that the decision had been made to sacrifice the program on the altar of what the deputy minister, Len Edwards, described as the “transformation agenda.”
The Harper government was 18 months into power. It was determined in principle and by ideological inclination to cut government spending. What’s more, it had a deep-seated suspicion of the Department, which it liked to characterize as a nest of superior elitists who turned their back on the rest of government in pursuit of an agenda that meant little to most Canadians. Even before Harper, such an attitude simmered in the core of the Privy Council Office and other government departments. But with the arrival of Harper this trope became almost sanctified as doctrine. In an oft-repeated analogy, most Canadians took their coffee at Tim Hortons; the elites sipped their lattes at Starbucks. The government was with the Tim Hortons crowd, it claimed. Deputy Minister Edwards was acutely aware of this in his interactions with the so-called “centre” and he was determined to respond. The transformation agenda was his vehicle to bring the government around to a new way of seeing its foreign affairs department.
Having been on the ramparts of Canadian trade and foreign policy for several years and having come to identify with the value of the Department’s mission, I found the disparaging attitude toward it galling, not to say ignorant. Explaining Canada’s role in the Gulf War and the Kosovo campaign; assembling the details of the NAFTA to help Canadians understand the most important commercial agreement Canada had ever signed; improving international flight connections between Canada and other countries, providing Canadian travellers more accessible international destinations; managing the complex arrangements of the softwood lumber agreement in the interests of an important national industry that provided jobs across the country – these had been among my duties so far in my career, and I had carried them out believing them to be valuable for the department’s clients and the public at large. There were few moments at my desk or in the field that I thought I was not trying to give taxpayers their money’s worth.
Promart was a $4.7 million fund that had been put in place in the ‘70s. Its chief purpose was to raise Canada’s profile internationally by showcasing abroad the work of Canadian musicians, writers, filmmakers and visual artists. As a 1975 cabinet memorandum stated, the fund was part of a program “to support effectively foreign policy objectives, taking fully into account Canada’s domestic cultural policies; to promote abroad Canada’s domestic, economic, social and political interests; to reflect internationally the growing creativity and scope of Canadian culture and to promote. . . the export of Canadian cultural manifestations, [and]; to improve professional opportunities abroad for Canadian artists . . .”
In its 35-year history, there had been several attempts to ditch the program by governments of various stripes. As in 2007, the argument had always been made that issuing cultural grants was not strictly part of the department’s core responsibilities. But this point of view was previously rejected on grounds that highlighting Canadian culture abroad was part of maintaining Canada’s international image and its “brand.” Moreover, the grants helped increase exports by Canada’s cultural industries, which provided net benefits to the Canadian economy. This rationale was not adequate for the Harper Conservatives, however. They arrived in office proclaiming their scorn for “soft power” diplomacy. They did not see the value in seeking to influence foreign opinion leaders through public relations campaigns, or embellishing Canada’s brand with wider international audiences. They wished a foreign policy that would focus on “hard” Canadian interests: protecting Canada’s security, offering consular services to Canadians abroad, promoting trade and investment. Even the latter was seen as less than a priority when it came to cultural industries.
From my personal perspective, the new government had a far too narrow view, born of lack of experience among the Conservative Party’s leaders in international affairs and an associated lack of interest. In one of his year-end interviews following his first months in office, Harper admitted that he had been unaware of the demands the international agenda would put on him and his government. The need for a major evacuation of Canadians from crisis-prone Lebanon in the summer of 2006, involving a major logistical effort led by Foreign Affairs, had been a rude awakening for the Conservatives. But dealing with the foreground requirements of foreign policy was still a long way from adopting complex strategies to influence and engage with international opinion and further Canadian interests in a less tangible sense. So public diplomacy and cultural programming were sitting ducks.
The role that I would be asked to play became clear within the first few days of my taking over the public diplomacy and culture directorship. I reported to Renetta Siemens, director-general of the culture and education branch, and she asked me to prepare a treasury board submission to endorse and finalize a strategic review recommendation to close Promart. I was to understand that the recommendation was not yet a decision. But the treasury board submission would make the case, outlining of course the up- and down-sides of such an action. This would need to be done in secret, as the various clients, such as symphony orchestras, publishers, museums and filmmakers, which traditionally received the grants, must not know in advance of what treasury board ministers might decide. To preserve secrecy, it was calculated that we also needed to keep the news from the majority of employees in my division. So began months of calculated insincerity as we sought to deflect inquiries from stakeholders about the “rumours” that the program was destined for closure.
My personal inclinations regarding the value of cultural programming were irrelevant. I had heard the complaints from Conservative-leaning colleagues about attending concerts of Canadian orchestras in almost empty halls in some European capital, or the outrage from a ministerial staffer that Promart had funded a Canadian rock band called Holy Fuck at the UK’s Glastonbury music festival (where it was applauded by audiences and acclaimed by critics). However, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra was about to undertake a major concert tour of South Korea, Macau and China, including concerts in Beijing and Shanghai, where its brilliant director Bramwell Tovey would feature some original Canadian work by a Chinese-Canadian composer. The tour would turn out to be a tremendous success, giving Vancouver profile as a modern, dynamic multicultural city in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics. In later assignments abroad in South Africa and Chile, I was also able to see how audiences embraced performances by Canadian classical and jazz musicians who had received some travel assistance from the embassy.
My personal preference would have been to keep the program. It was a relatively small program with tangible outcomes. But my duty as a civil servant was to give it its last rites. It was a test case for me not only in carrying out my non-partisan duties, but also in learning how to manage the dismantlement of an organization, which for any manager in the public or private sector is valuable administrative skill.
Drafting a treasury board submission is one of those necessary but still rather esoteric tasks that helps drive the machinery of government. It is more than a process of accounting for the increased or – in this case – decreased expenditures. It requires a narrative justification; a tally of the jobs involved and a plan to manage the employees affected; a communications plan to explain the initiative; and a variety of other exacting minutiae. It must also receive the approval of the highest echelons of the department, including the minister, before it is submitted to the treasury board for approval.
Layered on top of this already complex matrix were a further series of more abstract exercises to be incorporated in the federal government’s “performance management” process. There was a well-established trend in the private sector where management regimes sought to document business objectives and evaluate their success, which went beyond strict financial balance sheets. In seeking to run government more like a business, as so many management theorists have advocated, the federal government adopted a new accountability system which went beyond the traditional structure of budget, estimates and public accounts. The government, under the tutelage of treasury board devised a “management accountability framework” to guide the drafting of “reports on plans and priorities” (RPP) and “departmental performance reports” (DPR). As I prepared the treasury board submission to recommend the closure of Promart, I had also to prepare my division’s contribution to the RPP and DPR. Parallel to this exercise, we needed to contribute to the department’s “integrated business plan,” which among other things would calculate how many “full time equivalent” (FTE) positions (colloquially known as jobs) would be needed to carry out our functions. Without wading further into this acronym thicket, I was able to advise that preparing the RPP and the DPR consumed about 30 per cent of the time of my own “FTE”, and a good portion of those of others. My pride in my work as a federal civil servant notwithstanding, I was not alone in believing these exercises to be of limited value. I would challenge anyone who is not a participant in this process to derive any useful information from copies of any department’s RPP or DPR, which look to be little more than lists laid out in boxes. The need to feed the treasury board goat “generates a heavy workload in all government departments and agencies.” Donald Savoie, Canada’s foremost theorist on government administration, has likened “the public sector’s version of how the private sector decides” as “speaking in tongues” and “turning a crank that’s not attached to anything.”
These bureaucratic burdens were at best distracting, when we had before us the very practical challenge of devising the Promart closure plan, major components of which were timing and communication. Many of the grants to arts organizations, including particularly symphony orchestras, were reviewed and approved well ahead of the events they were meant to fund. Organizations were applying in 2007 for events to take place in 2008 and 2009. It was clear that ending Promart at the beginning of the fiscal year (April 2008 to March 2009) would mean that we needed to inform organizations now that they would receive no funds the following year. This was sure to confirm suspicions that the program was ending. As much as this might seem the right thing to do, the official decision had not been made, and there was the chance that some ministers on treasury board may have other ideas. Therefore, director general Siemens and assistant deputy minister Drew Fagan were successful in convincing deputy minister Edwards that the way past this conundrum was to phase out the program over the next two years. This would allow us to offer some of our traditional clients the assistance that they had historically come to expect without prematurely signalling the demise of the program. The treasury board submission would therefore ask for a grants budget of $3.9 million for the next two fiscal years before Promart was finally terminated.
The submission did not sail through entirely unopposed. International Trade Minister David Emerson saw value in the program to support larger trade missions with a sophisticated public diplomacy element. However, his concern was placated by a promise to draw up – after the cut – a joint Heritage Canada and Foreign Affairs policy team to conceptualize an alternative program. (I was later part of this team whose efforts came to naught in the face of a complete absence of support from Emerson’s cabinet colleagues and Emerson’s waning influence given his political weakness as a Liberal-to-Conservative turncoat who was unpopular in his Vancouver riding.) The submission was approved, and the plans were – we thought -- to be incorporated in the coming federal budget.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty presented the budget on February 26, 2008. Nothing in his budget speech, nor in the accompanying budget documents made mention of the cut of Promart, nor of another associated cultural program, Trade Routes, at Heritage Canada. Nor could one find any reference in the copious budget estimates that were released several days later. Mystified, we communicated with treasury board and officials in the department of finance to determine whether the phase-out and closure were still on. We were advised, in no uncertain terms, that they were.
I admit to being shocked by this failure to outline the decision in the budget documents. As a journalist, I had spent many hours poring over budgets in years past believing them to contain the comprehensive story of governments’ tax and spending plans. I had faith in the probity and transparency of the budget-making process. While knowing full well that governments often hide some of their decisions in the fine print, it had been my experience that the requisite information could always be found – somewhere in an obscure column or even footnote in the estimates – estimates upon which Parliament must vote and grant the sitting government its spending authority. In this case, the Promart decision and associated numbers were completely hidden from view. I spent hours scrutinizing the papers and sought help from colleagues in the department’s budget planning directorate. There was nothing.
The strategic review was theoretically a “revenue-neutral” exercise. That meant that any cut in programs and operations had to show up as additions to others. At first, this neutrality was to operate within departmental branches, so that the funds from the Promart cut would show up elsewhere in the policy planning bureau. Eventually, I was shown a spreadsheet (although I was not left a copy) that showed the Promart funds had been added to the international organizations (funding for the UN, for example) and disarmament budgets, neither of which was part of the policy planning bureau’s envelope. No one filing an access-to-information request would have been able to follow where Promart funds went. Clearly, a political judgement had been made to scorn the fiduciary principles of the budget process and keep the public in the dark.
I could not keep my staff in the dark, however. They needed to know how much the grants budget had been cut, how we were going to manage the reduced funds, and how we were going to “manage our clients’ expectations.” (This latter is a favourite phrase of federal bureaucrats when talking about delivering bad news.) I summoned the officers to the divisional conference room and informed them of what only I, my boss Renetta and one other employee had known with certainty during the previous several months. The 35-year cultural program, which they had faithfully administered, was going to be phased out over two years, and their jobs would be gone.
The fury of the visual arts officer was completely understandable. She and her colleagues had been told that there would be no official decision on the fate of Promart until the budget. Which was true, but insincere. Tempted as I was to take each of the officers into my confidence and explain the real situation, I had valued more my pledge to my director-general, assistant deputy minister and, by extension, the deputy minister to remain silent pending (what was expected to be) the budget announcement. In addition to managing the grants phase-out, I was charged also with managing the transition of my staff to new positions or, where possible and desired, to retirement.
Trouble was brewing in public. Although the possible reduction of cultural funding made few waves beyond arts organizations in English Canada, it became a cause célèbre in Quebec. Earlier culture program cuts had stirred criticism; the opinion-forming newspaper Le Devoir stirred fears about reduced arts funding on its front page; and a wickedly satirical YouTube video on the subject was going viral. In it, Quebec folk singer Michel Rivard, previously of the popular group Beau Dommage, played himself seeking a grant from a committee of federal bureaucrats. Three too-obviously anglophone officials in grey were becoming agitated over Rivard’s reference to “phoque”, a seal featured in one of his best-known songs, confusing the word with the common English expletive. A fourth official, who has so mastered a Quebec joual accent that he thinks he can aid communication by simply being authentic, nonetheless appears to have little interest in the substance at hand. When Rivard tries to give some “petites” clarifications, the grey anglophones mis-hearing a reference to a woman’s breasts, become completely flustered, and the chair stamps “rejected” on the application form.
The officers in my division were all fluently bilingual and had deep knowledge of their artistic disciplines and of the arts communities in both English and French Canada. So, the portrait of the personalities on the fictitious approval board was utterly false. Nonetheless, the video presented an image of the Ottawa bureaucracy and its governing politicians that is an easy but unfortunate cliché for sections of the public, including in Quebec where federal bilingualism is often seen as having been far from successful. For Quebecers, for whom the encouragement of francophone culture remains a high priority, the overall impression conveyed by the video contained a kind of symbolic truth.
From February until August, we continued to operate Promart without any reference to phase-out and closure. Despite the uncertainty hanging over their futures, officers continued to discuss funding projects with our usual clients. I was impressed by their discretion and their loyalty in not revealing the true state of affairs. Yet the announcement would have to be made shortly before it became evident the money was running out. I was asked to draft a communications plan which would explain the phase-out, provide the clear rationale and prepare defensive lines for the inevitable criticism. That plan was never put into action.
On the evening of August 7, 2008, we learned that an unnamed source in the prime minister’s office (PMO) had stated to several parliament hill reporters that Promart was being axed. The source cited three examples of the kind of grants that would no longer see the light of day: a $550 grant to present a filmmaker’s Confessions of a Drag Queen; a $990 grant to present the film Peking Turkey to a London, UK, gay and lesbian festival; and a travel grant for Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer and former Supreme Court judge Michel Bastarache to travel to Cuba to give speeches on Canadian foreign policy. The examples were selected in an obvious effort to trivialize the program and stir contempt among many of the government’s more right-wing supporters. Wasteful and immoral arts programming was seen as a perfect wedge issue to rile up emotions and drive opinion in the government’s favour. Sharply different perspectives between English Canada and Quebec did not seem to figure in the calculation.
A key flaw in the deliberate PMO leak was that none of the three examples had anything to do with Promart. They seemed to have been taken from some list of grants of unknown provenance that had been collated with the calculated aim of casting the dimmest light possible on federal cultural programming. We never knew the identity of the PMO source. But the prime minister’s chief of staff at the time was Guy Giorno and his director of communications was Kory Teneycke, each known for a belligerent, take-no-prisoners approach to political communications.
We had always planned as part of a more traditional communications strategy in which as one of the measures I would call Promart’s historic clients to advise them individually of the closure of the program. Unfortunately, under the twisted-knife approach of the PMO, there could be no measured outreach schedule. I was put in the position on Friday August 8 to call as many clients as I could to provide at least the courtesy of telling them our longstanding relationship was about to be severed. Of course, it did not help that I, as director of the program, had a personal scheduling conflict that the PMO would not have known or cared the least about. Suzanne and I had been married earlier that summer on June 14. We had delayed our honeymoon to start August 9 to correspond with the date of the wedding of my cousin’s son in Liverpool, England. Committed to my work as I was, I was not going to cancel this holiday. I made as many calls as I could that Friday before handing the remainder off to one of my deputies, John Bonar, to complete in the coming days. These were not easy conversations, but for the most part the reaction was a wearied resignation. Most clients, despite our recent efforts to maintain business as usual, had believed the rumours of imminent closure were true.
It was a relief in the months to come to be able to find suitable new berths for the Promart officers. Through reassignment in the government; a couple of retirements; and transfers to the surviving core of the public diplomacy section, none of the officers encountered grievous hardship. Of course, for the officers, having provided exemplary service in an interesting and specialized field for many years, their morale took a hit.
The more damaging consequences for the Promart closure fell on the Harper government itself. The minority Conservative government held 10 seats in Quebec, which it had won with the support of about 20.7 per cent of Quebec voters. In regular political polling the Conservatives were registering 30 per cent or higher in the summer of 2008, suggesting the party could improve its standing in Quebec in an election expected soon. In polls immediately after the Promart cut, Quebec support fell below 20 per cent. And in the October 14, 2008 election, the Conservatives were held again to 10 Quebec seats with 21.7 per cent of the vote. It was widely acknowledged among political observers at the time that had Harper not reduced the culture budget, he might have won a majority. For that, he had to wait another three years. Non-partisan civil servant or not, given the plainly deceptive game our political masters had played, I could not help but feel a certain poetic justice had been rendered.
It would take 18 months to wind Promart down. I had done my duty as a civil servant to lay out its final trajectory and had learned some lessons in management. I was relieved that we had been able help the staff find their feet either in retirement or new jobs. I was suffering neither guilt nor regret when I viewed the Department’s list for vacant assignments abroad and saw the job of political counsellor to the Canadian high commission in Pretoria was available. It was time to get out into the field. After having made the pitch for the job and being accepted, what followed were several months of briefings organized by the geographic desk and a steady stream of readings on the history and politics of South Africa. I was more than ready for this new assignment. I’d spent years working for the Department at headquarters. Now I would find out what it was like to work for Canada abroad.
Cited in Canada’s Department of External Affairs, Volume III, Innovation and Adaptation 1968 – 1984 by John Hilliker, Mary Halloran and Greg Donaghy; University of Toronto Press, 2017, p. 196. ↑
Savoie, Donald, Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? How Government Decides and Why, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013, p. 148 ↑
ibid. p. 138 ↑
Ibid. p.150 ↑
Paul Wells, The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006 –, Random House Canada, 2013, p. 169 ↑