The link

So, I saw a report by Bill Curry, in the Globe and Mail, regarding an exchange of e-mails between high-level Liberal political staffers regarding the advice that the public service provides. He explains that “It is unusual for the internal e-mails of political staff to be released publicly, as such records are normally exempt from release under the Access to Information Act. However this disclosure is separate from that act and is in response to an Oct. 26 motion approved by the House of Commons, ordering departments and ministers’ offices to produce all memos, e-mails and other records related to Canada’s COVID-19 response.

What the exchanges show, it seems to me, is the PMO’s dismay, even shock, at the notion that the public service would offer advice that was not pre-approved by the political staff.

And that might be what is wrong with almost everything in government today ~ the notion that everything is political.

In fact, the government, all of it, from the prime minister through to any clerk or cleaner, is our ~ the people’s ~ agency. It belongs to us ~ it “belongs” to the Queen, of course, be she is, simply, the personification of us; she is a convenient fiction ~ almost a fairy-tale ~ that we use to avoid needing to elect a head of state and, thereby, politicize that which needn’t be political.

Most of government functions, as it should, even when making major policy decision which can have huge economic impacts, without even ministerial much less prime-ministerial oversight. But in past years, since circa 1970, I think, politics has intruded more and more into what should be the domain of the public service. It got steadily worse, in my opinion, under successive Liberal and Conservative government …

… but it seems, to me, to have reached a fever-pitch under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. There always was a PMO of sorts, going all the way back to the Great Sir John A. Prime Minister’s need both policy and political advice and sometimes there are opposing policy and political elements surrounding any decision … think of building the CPR in the 1880s. But, until Pierre Trudeau’s reign government, the political advice was given in the traditional smoke filled rooms in the Chateau Laurier and the old Rideau Club and the office of the prime minister’s principal secretary was a senior, and politically very astute, public servant. The late Tom Kent, who was principal secretary to Prime Minister Lester B Pearson, was pretty much the last of that breed. Marc Lalonde became Pierre Trudeau’s principal secretary and, unlike Tom Kent, he was most definitely not part of the public service. But his (Lalonde’s) role was quite independent of the Clerk of the Privy Council, still, then, the formidable Gordon Robertson.

But while the serious politicization began under Pierre Trudeau it continued, unabated, under his successors, but none went as far as Justin Trudeau has. I cannot imagine that a Clerk like e.g. Kevin Lynch would have tolerated the misuse of a very senior public servant who was sent (knowingly) to lie to the media about diplomatic relations with a friendly country. My suspicion is that if that had happened on Mr Lynch’s watch the PM of the day would be looking for almost all of a new PMO the very next day, including a new chief-of-staff and a new principal secretary. But, of course, the PM of Mr Lynch’s day would never have made the kind of juvenile policy blunders that have come to characterize the Justin Trudeau regime and he would not have have tried to mix the political and policy functions because he understood the nature of both

And that, it seems to me, is a major part of Canada’s current problem. The Liberal Party didn’t just choose Justin Trudeau; it chose an experienced team with strong views about how government should work. And that team brought ideas that were road-tested in Toronto but needed to be imposed on Ottawa.

There was a very real link between politics in Queens Park, including eye-watering deficits and charges of contempt of the legislature in the first two decades of this century and the resignation, in disgrace, of Canada’s top civil servant in 2019.

That link is, of course, Justin Trudeau. He has taken the politicization of policy, which his father began circa 1970 to its logical albeit extreme end. That end includes the corruption of the civil service. Our system of government depends upon politicians making decisions based on expert, unbiased, apolitical advice. That applies in both the responsible (Westminster) and representative (Washington) systems. The representative system in the USA (sometimes called the “spoils” system (to the victor go the spoils) because, in the 19th century a change in government meant a wholesale change in the public service, top-to -bottom) has long been more politicized because it isn’t just cabinet ministers (secretaries) who change it is also their deputies and assistant deputies. But that was designed to accommodate the fact that, very often, the administration’s political opposition in the congress was unbelievably powerful compared to it’s Anglo-Canadian counterpart. But, in the 21st century the Liberal Party of Ontario wanted both the “elected dictatorship” which is how some commentators describe a majority government in our, Westminster, system and the bureaucratic control that an American administration enjoys. They got closer in Ontario and the team that moved the goal-posts part way included Gerald Butts and Katie Telford. They have gotten closer still in Ottawa since 2015.

The link needs to be broken. It is bad for democracy. There are pros and cons to both the Westminster and Washington systems of democratic government but the two are different and it is wrong and dangerous, to your liberty and mine, to try to make a hybrid just for convenience.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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1 Comment

  1. The question is, how to do this? Is there enough will among voters to exert pressure on individual MPs (all of them will respond to a threat to re-election) to change how parties operate, both when in power and in opposition? It seems to me that the Public Service is neither capable of nor inclined to push back against the government of the day, even if it is in the public interest. Time to write some letters, perhaps.

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