The Morning Brief – 11.18.20

By Bruce Carson



Peaceful, Orderly Transfer of Power from the previous administration to the next

The Importance of this bedrock principle of Democracy

If one was to do a word search of political articles published in the last couple of weeks and monitored political programs on television, the word “transition” seems to pop up many, many times in articles and programs.

Transition in our democratic parlance means the peaceful and orderly transfer of power and authority from the outgoing administration to the incoming one. It is most important when the transition occurs between administrations representing different political parties.  But it can occur when a leader, president or prime minister resigns during her or his term in office and a successor is either elected or appointed to fill the leadership vacancy.

While there are significant differences in the size, scope and scale of transition between administrations in Canada and the United States, the principle remains the same, peaceful and orderly transfer, the result being that the new administration is ready to assume power, knows where the levers are, and how to use them.

It is also of vital importance that the dialogue between the two administrations be honest and straightforward. There should be no known landmines ready to explode along the path to power. At the very least none should be planted by the outgoing administration.

In both Canada and the United States there are symbolic acts that illustrate the peaceful and orderly transfer of power. In the U.S., one of the most prominent is the outgoing president attending the inauguration of the incoming president. In Canada, while we may not have such a regular show of cooperation, the picture of both Stephen Harper, as the outgoing prime minister and Justin Trudeau as the incoming prime minister attending the 2015 Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa together during the transition period, sent a powerful message to Canadians. If Canadians needed a visual representation of transition, that was it.

The reason transition of power is so much in the news, of course, is because President Trump is not cooperating with President –Elect Biden on transition and it is unclear whether there will be cooperation before January 20, 2021, when the transfer actually takes place under the U.S. Constitution.

Stories have emerged from those involved in previous transfers about the need for transition to take place thoroughly and thoughtfully in order to protect the people of the United States. From stories about the Bay of Pigs invasion to lack of preparedness for the 9-11 attack to President Obama’s first Inauguration Day all point to security issues related to transition.

For obvious reasons, security of the American people is a major focus of transition in the U.S. While in 2020-21, national security remains important, it now takes the form of fighting COVID-19 and trying to revive the American economy.

The tasks before the transition team whether it be in Canada or the United States offer similar imperatives; advice on the selection of cabinet members, determine the state of play of the various issues presently on the front burner and those next in line so there can be some thinking about how they will be addressed by the new group, and staffing of the leader’s office as well as those of cabinet members.

Respecting the selection of cabinet members, one of the benefits of the American system is that the President can chose the best and brightest from across the land provided that person will pass a security test and then confirmation by the Senate. Which party has a majority in the Senate will be determined by two run-off elections in Georgia to be held on January 5, 2021.

Also in the United States there are literally thousands of political staff who will be vacating their positions on January 20, so new staff and security clearances will be needed quickly.

On the pitfalls waiting the Biden administration, the best example of cooperation seems to come from the transition from George W. Bush to Barrick Obama during the 2008-09 financial crisis. There was a high level of cooperation between the two administrations.

In Canada, transition doesn’t attract the same notoriety as in the U.S., however it is still vitally important to ensure stability and predictability as we move from one administration to the next.

I have been involved in three federal transition teams. The first was led by Bob de Cotret who had held a number of portfolios in the Mulroney government and was asked by Jean Charest when he was running against Kim Campbell and others for the job of prime minister after the resignation of Prime Minister Mulroney, after nine years in office.

Bob had assembled a talented team which included Barbara McDougall who gave valuable advice on foreign affairs. Unfortunately the team never had the opportunity to move into what was then known as the Langevin Block and begin the transition exercise.

The second, was a transition team headed up by the late Senator Norman Atkins in 1997 when the PC Party led by Jaen Charest was poised to move from two seats to an unknown number, but help would be needed setting up the new group after the general election. While the results gave the PC Party only 20 seats, one of the main achievements of the transition team was establishing a two day House of Commons education course for new members.

In 2006, I was included in the transition team headed by Derek Burney, former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Mulroney and former Ambassador to the United States. Burney assembled a small, knowledgeable team to take on three matters; cabinet selection, composing ministerial mandate letters and staffing of ministers’ offices.

The mandate letters were important as at that time Harper believed this minority government wouldn’t last long and he wanted a record of accomplishments he could point to in the inevitable next election. Two matters arose of significance during the transition period.

The 2006 Conservative platform called for the reduction in departmental spending across the board except in Defence and Indian and Northern Affairs. The savings were thought necessary to maintain budgetary surplus. At a meeting in then Clerk, Alex Himelfarb’s office it was explained that expenditures were scheduled to increase, so in order to decrease them, first they had to be levelled out. This was the reality the new government would face.

Another issue dealt with the Residential School Class Action Settlement, and the fact it had not been approved by the Martin cabinet. It was decided that Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Jim Prentice would present this situation to caucus where it was unanimously supported and then implemented.

As noted above, a peaceful and orderly transition is necessary to avoid pitfalls, allowing the new administration to hit the ground running. It is important in Canada and in the United States.

Hopefully, sooner than later, the necessary documentation will be put in place to allow President-Elect Biden access to daily security briefings and his team will gain the knowledge necessary to deal with COVID-19, particularly the distribution of vaccines.

To Come

  • CPI numbers for October will be released
November 20
  • Retail trade numbers for September to be released
November 23
  • Speech to be delivered by Toni Gravelle, Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada on the assessment of risks to the stability of the Canadian financial system
December 1
  • GDP numbers for September to be released