Mandarins regroup, in Canada’s regime change


Tuesday, Nov. 03, 2015 6:00PM EST 

Back in the middle of May, the deputy ministers of the federal government took the occasion of the pause before the election campaign to discuss and reassert the proper role of the federal civil service.

Little is known of what was actually said. Apparently to provide a focus to the discussion, the deputy ministers were presented with a 2010 paper by an eminent Canadian political scientist, Peter Aucoin, who died in 2011. The paper’s theme was that the federal bureaucracy is under pressure from the cabinet and political staffers to politicize public administration.

Many of the deputy ministers themselves have been appointed to their present positions by the departing Conservative government, including Janice Charette, the present Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet – the head of the civil service. That is a sign that the upper ranks of the bureaucracy have not been cowed into submission, in spite of allegations of “creeping politicization,” going back to the 1970s. Maybe the lower-level civil servants are the ones more easily subjected to pressure by political staffers.

Now that the Conservatives have lost the election, the deputy ministers may be preparing to send a clear message, or a gentle shot across the bows, to the incoming Liberal government – to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his chief adviser Gerald Butts and his chief of staff Katie Telford. The new government’s choice as head of the transition team, Peter Harder, a former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs and of the Treasury Board, will probably be quite welcome to the deputy ministers.

The late professor Aucoin’s paper appears to go too far in proposing that an independent panel, from outside government, should make the appointments to the upper civil service. That sounds too much like a self-perpetuating hierarchy. In the end, the cabinet should make the ultimate decisions, after paying attention to frank but confidential advice of the civil-service mandarins. Accordingly, it should continue to be answerable to the people of Canada.

At the same time, the new government should adopt a recent recommendation of the Public Policy Forum that the Prime Minister make a clear commitment to the principles “underpinning the public service in Canada.”

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.