Carney to England: Maybe just visiting is a good idea

Paul Wells on change at the Bank of Canada

Mark Carney’s departure for England will be keenly felt by a certain segment of Ottawa society, disproportionately based in the toney enclave of Rockcliffe Park and the would-be-toney neighbourhood of New Edinburgh, who believed Carney’s presence among us — He jogged the canal! His kids used to go to RPPS! — somehow validated Ottawa as a serious town.

The reaction when he walked through certain oak-panelled rooms — the dewey-eyed gaze of the steering committee members, the way Burberry-clad hearts would go pitty-pat — was Pavlovian. I’ve attended more than one dinner party where conversation turned, in the bank governor’s absence, to a perennial topic: “I don’t know how Mark puts up with this shitty little town.”

Now that he’s leaving, there’ll be an undercurrent of bitterness at Fraser Café tonight. The ADMs will be muttering into their aioli. “This is just another hopped-up lumber town,” they’ll say. “Always was.”

“Can’t keep serious talent,” the visiting fellows will grumble. “Now I’ll never get to ask him where he bought his cufflinks.”

But what if this whole international-mandarin-class thing is a good idea? 

I was going to congratulate the Brits on their open-mindedness in allowing a foreigner to run their central bank, but in fact there are many examples of public-service managers moving from jurisdiction to jurisdiction instead of staying in one city, or even one country, for an entire career.

Consider William Bratton. He was the police superintendent in Boston before Rudy Giuliani made him commissioner of the NYPD. Bratton presided over a drastic reduction in crime in New York City, and while there’s room to debate how much of that was due to his police techniques, he moved on to run the Los Angeles police department. And he was up for the top job in London’s police department before the UK home secretary decided that job, at least, must not be open to foreigners.

There’s also Richard Pennington, who was a top cop in the District of Columbia before leading the New Orleans police department, and then Atlanta’s. And Jay Walder, who ran London’s transit system before taking over New York City’s subway, before leaving to run a Hong Kong transportation company.

It has been suggested, by the U.S. blogger Matt Yglesias among others, that a similar system should be in place for elected officials as well, or at least that such lateral moves should not be out of the question. The idea here is that the best mayor for a big city would be, not a city councillor from that city, but somebody who had been a good mayor of a smaller city. Similarly, in Canada a rule of thumb, or accident of history, holds that provincial premiers don’t become prime minister. But maybe they should? Surely a decade delivering public services to 3 million Canadians is a better preparation for delivering services to 30 million than a decade being told by a sitting prime minister what to do.

I’m only half-serious here, but it’s fun to consider how far this could go. When Gordon Brown was suffering through his eternal (although, as it turned out, richly deserved) purgatory waiting for Tony Blair to retire, Éric le Boucher wrote a column in Le Monde saying Brown’s was too good a talent to waste. Perhaps while he waited to run Britain, le Boucher wrote, Brown could lend himself out as the interim prime minister of Germany, France and Italy. He’d hardly have done worse than the locals who round up running at least two of those countries.

People sometimes speculate about what Stephen Harper will do once he leaves office in Canada. Perhaps the answer is under our eyes. Perhaps he should be put in charge of Spain. Or Toronto.


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