Now that Parliament has resumed sitting, Canada’s public service will experience a minority government for the first time since Stephen Harper’s governments of 2006-11. Canadians elected a minority Liberal government that will look to continue to execute on promises made in the previous four years, as well as new ones from the 2019 federal election platform that will require cross-party support to achieve. Although some public servants at the top echelons of the federal bureaucracy may be well acquainted with the challenges of a minority government, others have yet to experience them.
Following an election, when a government is formed and its cabinet unveiled, there are two events that public servants anticipate: the Speech from the Throne and the release of the ministerial mandate letters. In mid-December, these revealed the medium-term plans of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government and provided a contextual narrative for everyone, but especially for the public service, which is tasked with implementing the government’s agenda. The 2019 Speech from the Throne contained a fair amount of policy and program detail that was lifted from the campaign platform; in fact, the Liberal platform was written like a fifth budget, making it operational and implementable within the expected lifespan of a minority Parliament. This is one reason why the government appears confident that its program will be supported by other parties.
During a minority government, the prospect of an election is ever-present. The public service must be more focused and must deliver tangible results that the government can communicate to voters in as short a time as possible. As a result, the public service will have to shift away from how it was operating under eight years of majority government and become quickly accustomed to the government of the day’s mindset and intentions. It must think in the short to medium term as the demands and pressures on it are elevated by instability and partisanship. The public service will need to be more aware than ever of where the political overlap lies. It must ensure that its nonpartisan advice on policy and program options is broad enough to meet the government’s twin objectives: to live up to the Liberal platform, and to get at least one of the other parties onside.
A highly focused public service
The traditional function of the public service is that of policy implementation: to carry out the policies of the government of the day while upholding its own standard of political neutrality. But as the country grows and evolves and the work of the public service expands, politicians will need additional expertise and support; that is how public servants become more involved in policy formulation. Today, Canada’s public servants are young, ambitious and filled with big ideas, all characteristics reinforced by Trudeau’s adoption of deliverology: an approach to deliver on the government’s priorities by eliminating the gap between policy-making and implementation. However, four years in a majority government is not enough to implement big ideas, let alone two years with a minority government. In this political context, the public service must stay highly focused on what’s achievable.
Following a humbling result on election night, Trudeau was clear that he will not form an alliance or coalition with any one party or group of parties but will cooperate and seek support on a case-by-case basis. Although this approach is the best way forward under a strong minority government, it has political risks. For instance, policy ideas around developing natural resources or affordability that interest only the Liberals could lead to a non-confidence vote in Parliament; alternatively, if the opposition parties decide to support the government’s proposals, they could score political points by taking credit for passing important pieces of legislation. So the public service will be directed to focus on implementing policies and programs that either were in the works before the election or can be achieved in the short term, so that the government can take the credit.
More accountability for civil servants
Two important factors among many that will lead to a highly focused public service during a minority government are an increased demand for accountability and a decline in the volume of new or expanded policies. According to David Good, an academic who studies minority governments, senior civil servants and politicians will become highly preoccupied with accountability in government, and decision-making power will be further centralized, leading to the weakening of the policy capacity within the public service. The government will increasingly shape policy and programs to distinguish itself further from the opposition.
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Naturally, minority Parliaments bring additional scrutiny of the government and, by extension, of senior public servants; by virtue of their position, they, too, experience the effects of partisan politics and greater demands for accountability. Parliamentary committees — one of the many weapons the opposition can use to hold the government to account — will present many opportunities for interparty rivalry while testing the government on its record. Under a majority, the government can dictate what happens at committees because it holds the majority of the committee seats. In a minority situation, ministers and their senior public servants must be always on their guard, as the opposition can request them to appear at committees to discuss almost anything. Under such circumstances, the government cannot shut down debate at committee, and public servants must ensure briefing materials for the ministers and officials who appear before committees are bulletproof.
The Liberal government will be less willing to introduce bold new policy ideas from its platform and will stick to previous commitments and ventures that are guaranteed to get support in the House of Commons.
Increased scrutiny and calls for greater accountability will make government more risk averse, which means that central agencies such as the Privy Council Office, the Department of Finance and to an extent the Treasury Board Secretariat will have more power. They will act as gatekeepers for the consequential ministers’ offices, to ensure the priorities of the government are being implemented speedily. From a public service perspective, senior public servants will become more political by necessity as central agencies will have an iron grip on government policies and programs.
The Liberal government will be less willing to introduce bold new policy ideas from its platform and will stick to previous commitments and ventures that are guaranteed to get support in the House of Commons. For instance, infrastructure spending was a key component in every party’s 2019 platform. The Liberals will seek to accelerate spending from the infrastructure program, created earlier to spend nearly $100 billion in new dollars, by shifting the funds into a number of existing infrastructure programs. By taking the safe road, the government can satisfy stakeholders across the country while building momentum for an election that will come sooner than anyone would like.
In a minority situation, decisions on policy and spending are further politicized and amplified by the parliamentary circumstances, as politicians are tempted to reward loyal ridings and ignore ridings they will never hold. The public service will need to adapt and become reactive, to avoid pitfalls and to ensure it does not lose sight of the minority context. The very survival of a minority government will heavily depend not only on the political prowess of the party but also on the public servants who bring life to the ideas on which the government was elected. For however long this minority government will survive, it will present unique challenges for Canada’s public service and test its renowned effectiveness.
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