Bu-Bye Harper, From a Beleaguered Civil Servant
(Written in November 2015)
Canadians from all corners of this vast country voted last fall to oust Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and gave the Liberal Party of Canada and Justin Trudeau a clear mandate to govern. The election results included a large swath of votes that went to the New Democratic Party and Green parties, and clearly signaled a widespread desire for government to play an active role in bettering the lives of Canadians. For many years we watched Harper and his clowns publicly engage in projectile vomiting toward the bureaucracy; we saw him toss a steady-stream of scapegoats under the bus to titillate the spectators of their three-ring circus who came with a blood-lust.
There isn’t much room for interpretation of those fall election results. It is a clear repudiation of the angry, divisive style and tone of the former Prime Minister. It was a rejection of his empty platform – if banning burqas and rallies with Rob Ford are rightly called parts of a ‘platform.’ Canadians demanded a plan that was more specific than “tax cuts” which, in Harper’s final term of office, seemed to fuel the belief he had a free hand to do anything he pleased so long as he cut a per cent off the GST – proroguing parliament three times, introducing bills amending twenty-six pieces of legislation without study by committee, passing unconstitutional laws, firing scientists from the bureaucracy for discussing science, and so on, and so on. Maybe Canadians want to pay less tax, but they also want a government to outline its agenda and be transparent in its actions; they want to be given something by which an informed decision about whether to give them a mandate can be made.
I say that not as a partisan, but as a civil servant who, like the vast majority of my public-sector peers, have made a career implementing the laws, plans, and priorities of government, hopefully for the betterment of the lives of Canadians. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to hear a public servant suggest that, under the tutelage of the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the last several years were totally demoralizing. It wasn’t just the cuts to thousands of colleagues, it was vitriolic way by which the public service as a whole was slandered to justify the deed; a mode of attack sustained well after the slashing had been done. It revealed the Harper Conservatives not as good governors or earnest policy-makers but as petty, vindictive human beings.
The relationship between the elected government of the day and the Canadian public service is grounded in the Westminster system of government inherited from our great- great- grandparents in the United Kingdom. In this model, there is a clear separation from the Prime Minister and Cabinet on one side, and the non-partisan government Ministries that administer the laws, regulations, policies, and plans attached to each of the portfolios of the Cabinet on the other.
The Cabinet Minister with portfolio is politically accountable for the activities of his Ministry. However, the person responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Ministry is the Deputy Minister. The relationship is much like that of a Chief Executive Officer and a Chief Operating Officer in a large, publicly-traded company. The former is accountable to outside stakeholders, the latter is responsible to run the place and keep the CEO informed.
Under this arrangement, Cabinet ministers are not expected to be expert in their portfolios. As avatars of the will of the people they are there to provide clear mandates to the Deputy Ministers (DM) who must implement the plans of government. As elected officials, it is the Minister’s job to engage stakeholder citizens to canvass their issues and incorporate them into directives their DMs must achieve in operating the department. It is also the role of the elected Minister to remain abreast of the progress of his Ministry in effecting the agenda, and to communicate progress to the stakeholders.
The role of the Deputy Minister and the bureaucracy is to take what can be very broad, vague instructions of their Minister and, as experts in the area, find effective ways to implement these plans with the resources provided to do so. Sometimes that means recommending new laws or policy to ensure that plans are undertaken in a fair and procedurally transparent fashion. Determining the best way to execute an idea or plan is a process, but relies on the expertise and resources of the public service to carry those plans through effectively.
On paper, it seems so simple. Except, imagine how hard it must be for a newly-elected Minister who was a pig farmer by vocation to suddenly find himself politically responsible for the day-to-day operations of a department like Foreign Affairs. The urge to interfere and micromanage to allay anxieties about being politically accountable for something way beyond your grasp is understandably strong. The new Minister doesn’t know his DM, the Ministry, or the Public Service from a hole in the side of his barn.
This is why the bonds of trust and respect between the elected government of the day and the Public Service is essential right at the outset. For the Prime Minister and Cabinet, this is where Deputy Ministers (and the Privy Council Office) make their bread. They are accustomed to working with people who do not know their portfolios in depth and they have dozens, hundreds, or thousands of public servants in their Ministries to do the necessary work in rolling out plans, monitoring progress, and reporting on accountabilities.
There is a reason Canada is a relatively centrist, middling country whose progress tends to be slow but steady. The day-to-day functioning of government Ministries is mandated by the laws of Parliament and as such cannot be subjected to political whimsy or interference. If that happens, then laws become meaningless paeans to corruption. At the same time, ideas that express the desires of the people, even if whimsical for their lack of specificity, cannot be flatly dismissed by stolid bureaucracies. That is why there needs to be mutual respect, discussion, and trust between the sides. They may start at opposite ends of how ideas translate into programs and policy and must, from there, arrive at a measure of what can feasibly be accomplished.
This is why the public service must not be partisan. It is expected to give the best advice possible no matter who is in power. Certainly, public servants have political views – they are citizens – however they take their cues from the will of democracy as exemplified in the elected government and focus their efforts on gaining expertise in the machinery of government. This allows Deputy Ministers to provide the most candid advice without taint of political machinations.
It is clear, the former government of Prime Minister Harper did very little to respect the Westminster model of government – either on the political side where he prorogued Parliament, introduced omnibus bills and the like – or in respect of the bureaucracy, which he politicized to a degree unprecedented in recent Canadian history. He took the premise of prioritizing government austerity and transformed it into a campaign to discredit and impugn the integrity of the public service in the eyes of the Canadian public. In dismissing the competence of the public service outright and attempting to reach far into the day-to-day functions of the Ministries he also undermined the very essence of a functioning government which relies on a partnership of elected ministers and a non-partisan bureaucracy.
For the most part, I dismissed Harper’s electioneering as the necessary bluster of politics. It was meant to give the public something of putative substance to spice up the most unimaginative political platform for a nation imaginable: “tax relief.” In my mind, that was a clever evasion; a bit of mental laziness for failing to outline one’s policy choices. It still shocks me that Canadians or any citizen of a democracy falls for such nonsense, but such is the tenor of the times. If Canadians wanted to believe that public servants are demons, fair enough, but no rational group of elected officials given a mandate to actually govern could possibly have believed that nonsense, I reasoned. How truly wrong I was.
In the beginning, Harper slashed and razed publicly funded programs like the Court Challenges Program on strident, ideological grounds and justified it by saying the electorate had given him carte blanche to cut as he saw fit. Toward the end of PM Harper’s reign, the PMO went rogue all over the public service, truly believing their own fabulist tales about how bureaucrats were devoid of competence or irrelevant to running a government. The Globe and Mail story about how the PMO requested refugee files of fleeing Syrian migrants to do their own audit of the immigration department’s file management was the most insidious reflection of this. What expertise lay in the PMO that would have outflanked that of seasoned bureaucrats whose careers had been spent assessing immigration and refugee applications? What kind of audit could a non-experienced political staffer have done that would have been qualitatively better than, say, one done by a senior executive within the immigration department?
I have to confess in the end, I took much of this very personally as a public servant because of the systematic attacks we were all subjected to for so many years. To this day, the mere utterance of the name Tony Clement makes me want to drive my fist into the nearest wall imagining his smug, self-satisfied, corrupt face as a target. But then I was heartened to have such strange bedfellows in my career woes: Harper’s most prominent Cabinet ministers began to drop off like flies before the last election. Backbench MPs were kicked out of caucus, senior Cabinet members were muzzled, party discipline turned grown adults into cheerleaders for Harper’s cynical agenda. I barely knew the names of a vast majority of Conservative MPs or Cabinet ministers until the press releases announced their departures. ‘Ah, so that’s who the so-and-so Minister was. Good to know,’ I found myself saying repeatedly.
It became clear, the former PM believed he needed neither a public service nor an effective Cabinet and party caucus to govern this country. In retrospect, it is harrowing to think that the Conservative Party was so totally emasculated that it could do nothing to protest such iron-fisted rule, or rein in unilateral decisions that everyone in caucus must have known would be wildly unpopular with the electorate. It makes me shudder for Canadian democracy to think how close we were to having elected a dictator.
In any case, from the perspective of a public servant, Harper’s reign is so tragically peculiar. It is unbecoming of a man of Stephen Harper’s obvious intelligence and genuine desire to serve the public interest to have harboured such clear delusions about what could be achieved all on his own; to think he didn’t need a civil service to implement his plans. Not only is it idiotic but it is petty to the extreme. I think there are lessons in this for any party leader. His legacy is the cautionary tale of what happens when over-wrought ego and hubris combine not only to rob a party of its moral tether but to deprive a nation of a well-functioning government.
I make these points not in the interests of supporting a particular party, so much as to offer a lone voice from the public service to counter the repeated sermons demonizing civil servants Canadians heard from the bully pulpit of the previous government. I am also speaking out as just one of the thousands of public servants who get up every day and try their hardest to do their jobs to the best of their ability with the tools – and the orders – given them. Imagine going to work at your company and everyday seeing your boss on television or in the papers disparaging you, suggesting you’re over paid, under-worked, incompetent, undeserving, entitled, expendable, and mostly unnecessary. And then imagine that boss coming to you every day with a new plan, priority, or mandate and castigating you publicly for being unable to steer a teetering ship in seventeen different directions. Imagine.
In the end, Canadians were able to see through the vitriol and to the character and integrity of a man so easily capable of lobbing such relentless invective at the very people he needs to help him govern. I am glad collective wisdom prevailed. Not only has it maintained my faith in my fellow citizens, but so too has it restored my faith in democracy and re-invigorated my desire to serve the public.
Despite the number of Canadians who voted against the message of negativity in our Canadian election, there is still a sizeable element of the Canadian public who still lack faith in the integrity of the public service, who seem to doubt on a fundamental level the utility in spending a dime on public services. The former PM and a few of his ministers focused much of their effort on painting a picture of federal public servants as abusers of certain entitlements such as sick pay. They felt so strongly about the issue they fed the Canadian public misinformation about the cost and nature of sick leave in the public service. They passed legislation to impose a new sick-leave regime which violates the collective bargaining rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I would ask, what are citizens supposed to take away about their rights as employees across all sectors if its own federal public servants and their employer, the Government of Canada, are flouting the constitutional foundations of Canada’s labour laws?
At some point this type of dialogue simply marks those who utter it as stupid, ignorant assholes. I don’t know why, but it is conservative ideologues in Canada and the US that seem to monopolize these ranks. To be blunt, this isn’t conservatism at all; it is libertarianism, the right side of a continuum that ends in anarchism on the left. David Hume, Edmund Burke or Michael Oakeshott would recognize nothing in the movements passing themselves off as conservatism these days. The political discourse their proponents tout resembles a bowel movement, rather than a legitimate body of political thought.
In any case, many so-called conservatives tout specific policy priorities that only governments can implement, which makes their avowed desire to see the death of government through tax starvation really peculiar. For example, conservatives typically view military intervention as the preferred stand-in for real diplomacy in foreign relations. Person for person, the military is the most expensive of government operations a nation undertakes – each soldier comes with a huge price-tag in training and equipment that consumes tax revenue far more rapidly than other programs. To the degree right-wing ideology informs an over-reliance on military solutions, it posits a far more profligate use of the public purse than any number of items on a typical socialist agenda.
After the 2008 housing and financial sector crash, what would the US economy look like today if there were no government to intervene? That bailout was tax money, in case anyone was wondering. It’s interesting, when the government expenditures benefit corporate interests the reliance on such schemes upon buckets of tax revenue, or their deprivation of the public purse with preferential tax policies, which is effectively a tax subsidy, are completely downplayed. Make no mistake, these rely upon a government that collects taxes; in some cases lots of taxes.
Suffice it to say there will never be a state of affairs where a government collects little or no taxes and is then able to respond to the needs of its citizens with effective policies; yes, even if “conservatives” are elected. So, this line of rhetoric about zero taxes and the perfunctory role of government should no longer gain any traction politically. Taken to the extreme it benefits only those who would see our democratic nations turned into Corporations which are, by virtue of their purely economic nature, primarily fascist organizations. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Pinochet are what happens when oligarch industrialists, teeming with ennui at the mere monopolization of a nation’s wealth, aspire to monopolize the political power as well; their zeal for propagating disenfranchisement as they fatten their wallets knows no bounds.
Given that reality, Canadians are best served by parties offering something other than business priorities or tax policy; who do not tout cynical notions that undermine democracy and care little for social goods like education or health care. Citizens are best served by plugging their ears to demagogues who spew old albatrosses about “evil government” and “lazy public servants” as institutions that aren’t worth sustaining with tax revenue. It’s a great song and dance, but if taxes are cut the services and the government go with them. I shouldn’t have to spell that out, but there are throngs of people who support perpetual tax cuts without thinking about what will step in to deliver public goods – Corporations. It is a clever, elegant delusion which, if it continues to be believed, will destroy the foundation that makes Canada a global economic and political leader – an educated, healthy, and well-governed society.
I take the 2015 federal election as a clear sign Canadians want to get back to reality. We can’t deny the nation-building role of government – hospitals, schools, universities – these were planned, built, and continue to be operated by government. Those who say they don’t want to pay taxes are essentially saying they are in favour of letting the schools, hospitals, police detachments, and universities crumble. Any party that pretends to offer “savings” by gutting the ability of a government to deliver on its mandate, and slanders their key partners in governing – the public service – should be chased off the political stage as the disingenuous frauds and hucksters they are. They are selling snake oil to gain power.
I say that as a citizen foremost, and as a public servant eager for a government who proceeds with a vision and a plan to make Canadian lives better. I am glad last fall most Canadians put their votes toward parties that decided to run on actual policy issues. In order for the Westminster model to work as intended, it needs elected officials with a clear mandate who are eager to work with their mandarins to implement their priorities. The Westminster model needs elected officials who believe the reason they stood for office is to actually govern the nation.
To Prime Minister Trudeau I say my colleagues and I are here with knowledge, experience, and eagerness to work as partners with the government of the day to implement its plans. I say the same to the next Prime Minister, be it yourself or another. We are here to serve our fellow citizens because that is what we do – we work for Canadians. True enough, we are less able to massage hollow partisan agendas into workable laws and real policy because, in their contempt for reality, they don’t translate into feasible, measurable results. We have dedicated our careers to advising elected officials in how to turn lofty political ideas into practical, executable plans. Now that the politicking is over, let’s rise above the platitudes to rouse a political base, dispense with scape-goating the public sector to feed the knuckle-draggers, and collaborate to effect real, meaningful changes to better the lives of Canadians. That is why we both sought to be where we are, after all.