The worlds of politics and bureaucracy are so different that one wonders how the two could possibly learn to work with one another. Politics is, by definition, bottom-up, with all voters having one vote. Its boundaries are defined by geography, by a constituency with community and regional interests to promote. All politicians, particularly in Canada, view things through regional or territorial lenses and look to the democratic process for guidance and a verdict on their performance. This is a world shaped by images and by ten or fifteen second linear bursts of bombast on television or in question period. As many have observed, in politics perception is reality. Impatience rules ”” to an outsider, things appear far easier to fix than they do from within government departments. A long-term perspective in politics is four years, yet its practitioners must always remain in tune with the voters, who may not appreciate why solutions are not always at hand or being implemented.
Government bureaucracy, in contrast, has until recently worked top-down and transmits decisions and directives from higher to lower ranks. It consists of skilled policy analysts and administrators, and its boundaries are defined by hierarchy, not by geography. Its perspective is sectoral (for example, agriculture and energy) and horizontal (i.e., seeking policy coherence for operations). It is a very patient realm, which values consensus and considers itself the permanent custodian of society’s problems.
The prime minister and the cabinet are expected somehow to bring politics and bureaucracy together, and, in conjunction with Parliament, to express the public will and to establish the broad duties of the civil service.
How does Parliament relate to the government and to the public service? How do ministers work with career officials? How are policies struck? How do ministers and career officials deal with Parliament’s accountability requirements?
Most Canadians now hold federal politicians of all parties in low regard. Nearly two-thirds believe that MPs misuse their office to secure personal benefits, and many MPs themselves often lament the fact that they no longer command respect in society.
Local candidates do not have much say in putting together their party’s electoral platform. Pollsters, advertising and marketing specialists, close associates of the party leader, and a handful of senior party activists, all working closely with the leader, produce the national platform and retain a central role in the campaign organization and running of the national campaign. This is true even of the governing Liberals, notwithstanding a strong caucus and cabinet ministers from which to draw ideas.
Party leaders appear increasingly to be the only substantial candidates in the election race. The national media focus on them rather than on selected candidates, even those enjoying a high profile in their regions. Journalists buy seats on their chartered aircraft and follow them everywhere. The media and, by extension, the public focus on the clash of party leaders. The leaders debate on national television, in both English and French. How a leader does there can affect ”” or be perceived to do so ”” the campaign if not the election itself. It is now widely accepted in the literature that ”˜debates are more about accidents and mistakes than about enlightenment on the capabilities of candidates to govern.’ When Brian Mulroney told John Turner in the 1984 campaign, ”˜You had an option, sir’ ”” referring to Turner’s decision after taking office to proceed with Pierre Trudeau’s patronage appointments ”” or, when Turner told Mulroney in 1988 that he was standing up for Canada in debating the free-trade agreement, the exchanges left party handlers scrambling to minimize political damage. A widely read study of the 1988 campaign suggests that ”˜had the debates not happened, there is every indication that the Conservatives would have coasted home to victory.’ Chrétien’s handlers, in contrast, were relieved after the 1993, 1997, and 2000 debates that he did not fare as badly as some had feared.
Voter perception, often shaped by the media, help establish leaders’ credibility and competence. Campaign mistakes widely reported on television news also influence perception. Stockwell Day experienced this at first hand in the 2000 campaign when he forgot that Lake Erie was part of the Great Lakes, as did Kim Campbell in 1993, when she declared that the unemployment rate would probably not drop below 10 percent before the turn of the century. This pessimistic statement sounded the starting gun of the campaign and dogged her party’s campaign to the end. Similarly, it was she alone, not other party candidates, who was left to explain and later apologize for her party’s television ad highlighting Jean Chrétien’s partial facial paralysis. The incident was replayed on the news for several days, seriously damaging Tory chances. The Canadian Alliance saw its advantage on health care during the 2000 campaign turned on its head when Jason Kenny, formerly Stockwell Day’s key campaign strategist, opened up the issue of two-tier medical care with some ”˜poorly chosen words’ on television.
Today, the local candidate is expected to campaign hard, to keep his or her name out of the limelight, to avoid getting the party in trouble, and to leave the campaign decisions to the professionals in Ottawa ”” who, they are told, are always in a better position to see regional trade-offs, understand the national interest, and protect the party leader.
A good number of aspiring and even some sitting MPs in Canada regard their lack of national political experience as a plus. American politics has influenced in Canada, and just as many US presidential and congressional candidates have since the 1970s ”˜run against Washington,’ some Canadian MPs take considerable pride in bashing Ottawa. This is obviously the case for Bloc Québécois candidates, but it is also true of the Canadian Alliance and even some Liberal backbenchers.
Many newly elected MPs arrive in Ottawa uncertain about their role, the role of the House, and its relation to government. They may not fully appreciate that the role of government is to govern and that of the Commons is to subject political power to certain controls, to provide legitimacy to government action and activities, and to hold the executive to account.
The government party in the Commons has a different relation between MPs and political power from that of opposition MPs and power. A government party with a majority mandate has its hands on all the levers of power to decide, to appoint, to finance, and to produce legislation.
The difference is this: some government MPs have access to power, while the rest have access only to levers of influence. Neither of these is available to opposition MPs. Something like one in five government MPs will be ministers, about twenty will be parliamentary secretaries, twenty will chair a committee, one will be Speaker, and another government whip. All in all, some seventy or more government MPs hold a position of power or influence. The rest enjoy a privileged position in Parliament because they are members of the government caucus, where they hear about legislative proposals before they are introduced into Parliament. More important, they have weekly opportunities to challenge the prime minister and ministers in private and to voice opinions about government policies or operations.
The prospect of future rewards also strengthens the hand of the prime minister. Although some MPs are quite happy not to be in cabinet, they are very much in the minority. One minister suggested that ”˜at least 90 percent of the government caucus, if not more, would welcome an opportunity to sit in cabinet. For the great majority of us, that is why we run for Parliament.’
Opposition MPs are also expected to embrace their party’s policies, to vote with the party on legislation, and to fall in line behind the leader. Opposition leaders can always hold out the promise of appointment if they ever achieve power. In addition, they can remove some MPs from relatively high-profile ”˜shadow-cabinet’ positions. MPs know that internal dissension can hinder their party’s chances in the next election.
Yet opposition MPs have a much freer hand in speaking out on policy issues and government operations than do government MPs, provided that they do not harm their party’s image. The goal is very often to humiliate the government and to gain a profile in the media. Again, so long as one does not embarrass his or her leader, everything seems to be fair game. John Nunziata, a former MP and a member of the so-called rat pack of four Liberal members who always taunted the Mulroney government in question period, explains: ”˜We were carefree and at times careless. We were a hot commodity.’ He reported that fellow rat pack member Brian Tobin ”˜repeatedly rehearsed ripping up a report in private before performing it publicly during question period. The line was going to be ”œit’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” and Brian practised tearing it in half and in half again and throwing these bits of paper up into the air; that was the TV clip.’
Doug Young, while an opposition MP, launched a high-profile campaign to fight the Mulroney government’s plan to reduce Via Rail services in Atlantic Canada and to introduce cuts to the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program. He urged New Brunswickers to help him stop the government dead in its tracks, on the grounds that both measures would hurt the provincial economy. He even offered to organize public hearings to enable all New Brunswickers to demonstrate their opposition to the plans. Now, fast forward to Chrétien’s first mandate, where that same Mr Young turned all his energy to fiscal concerns. He took to the program-review exercise with gusto and promoted a policy to sell the country’s air navigation system, privatize CN Rail, reduce still further subsidies to Via Rail, and do away completely with freight rate subsidies for Atlantic manufacturers. Moreover, he came out in favour of substantial cuts to UI. What explains his remarkable about-face? One can only assume that it was not political ideology or sound policy work. Rather, it was the pursuit of political power and a recognition of the reality of public policy once he was in power.
Government MPs will usually harbour any political capital they have to promote their constituency, province, and region. First, a regional caucus encourages them to look at government policies and programs from a regional or territorial perspective. Second, an MP’s efforts on behalf of his or her constituency take place away from the media, are usually non-threatening, and are often one-on-one (an MP and the relevant minister or career official). The prime minister and cabinet never feel threatened or even challenged by an MP working on behalf of the constituency. They see it as an important part of an MP’s work. When Prime Minister Chrétien was taken to task for intervening before a crown corporation on behalf of a business in his constituency (i.e., the so-called Shawinigate scandal), or when he secured public funds to build a water fountain in the riding, he responded by saying that he was simply doing his work as an MP.
Robert Thibault, clerk-treasurer of Argyle, a small community in rural Nova Scotia, was elected to Parliament in 2000, and Jean Chrétien immediately appointed him to cabinet. Leaving his first cabinet meeting, he told journalists: ”˜I finally know what paradigm shift means.’ Overnight Thibault became not only a member of the cabinet but also the minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, which had a $400 million annual budget and a staff of over 300.
On the first day on the job, a minister meets his deputy minister who hands over several thick briefing books. These introduce departmental policies, program objectives, key staff, and issues and challenges. The minister immediately becomes responsible for everything done in the department, past and present, and everything may be the object of parliamentary scrutiny. He or she is accountable to Parliament and to the public. The minister can hire staff to manage the office, to deal with the media, to advise on policy, to look after political interests, and to deal with the party. Limousine and chauffeur are always at the ready to whisk him or her away to another meeting.
What, then, makes a minister successful? In Canada at least, longevity in power is its own reward. There are very few who make it to cabinet at the federal level for having strongly identified with a political ideology or a policy position. That is not the Canadian way. Cabinet ministers may well hold strong views on language and on regional issues but rarely from an ideological or policy perspective. One former deputy minister summed it up well: ”˜My experience as often as not was that the minister had no view on policy.’ In the absence of clear policy principles, the minister’s objective is to survive, to protect his or her political interest and that of the government. When he shuffled his cabinet in January 2002, Jean Chrétien observed that ”˜it is a privilege to be a minister. It isn’t a long-term contract.’ Most ministers see cabinet in terms not of ideology or clear policy positions, but rather of ambition and survival.
What matters to ministers who decide simply to linger on is that they retain a seat in cabinet or are able to win that prized possession again and hold on to it. The key to success thus is straightforward: stay out of trouble with the media, and handle question period with dexterity. The prime minister and no one else decides if ministers are successful or not. He is the boss. One long-serving deputy minister (more than ten years) observed, ”˜You have no idea what kind of power the prime minister holds over ministers. He has in his hands the minister’s car, his chauffeur, his office, his job, his ego, and so on. I have been in the public service for nearly thirty years in the Privy Council Office and line departments, and I can tell you that the grovel count in the great majority of ministers has always been quite high and, if anything, it keeps getting higher as the years go by.’
Not all ministers, however, are happy just to linger on. Some want to challenge the status quo, and sometimes all ministers have to deal with powerful forces (such as program review) that push departments to change course. Others work hand in hand with their officials to promote departmental interests, to secure new funding from the prime minister, and to persuade the minister of finance to support new initiatives. Still others may be tempted to overhaul departmental policies and programs because they want to see a change of course.
The key to success for these energetic, ambitious ministers is gaining the support of the prime minister, his or her advisers, and central agencies and establishing a strong working relationship with senior departmental officials. Otherwise there is not much hope for success. Indeed, any ministers who set out alone to overhaul departmental policies will be identified as rogue ministers by the PMO and the PCO. If that happens, the minister will be reeled in. Departmental officials will then take their cue from the clerk of the Privy Council, and although they will give an appearance of support, their efforts will actually be modest. New ministers have the career officials who served their predecessors and as a rule do not intervene in promotions within their departments.
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If, however, the minister has the prime minister’s support, then departmental officials give their best effort. They consult outside groups, engage the interdepartmental policy process, work with central agencies, and provide the minister with all the support needed to pilot proposed measures through the decision-making process. The goal is to get the measures through the policy process, and career officials achieve the required consensus among departments.
All ministers know that the House of Commons helps determine success, in the eyes of the prime minister, colleagues, government caucus, the media, and ultimately Canadians. For many ministers, the Commons means question period. Very few ministers encounter problems in a standing committee. To start with, they do not spend much time there, because government MPs constitute a majority and the media hardly pay any attention to work there. Apart from question period, many ministers ignore the work of the Commons and MPs often speak to a near-empty House.
Question period, however, is a different matter. Senior officials monitor it very carefully and often turn on a television to watch it. They know that it is a forum for the opposition, which hopes to put ministers on the defensive, to identify policy or administrative miscues, and to grab media attention. There is always the risk that the department could be caught in political cross-fire.
Ministers can count on the support of their departmental officials as they prepare for question period. No one, least of all deputy ministers, wants to see an administrative shortcoming showcased. They may take comfort in the knowledge that it is the minister who must face the music, but they realize that shortcomings reflect more on how deputy ministers run their departments than on the minister. Deputy ministers and other senior officials see no contradiction in supporting their ministers and giving them as much ammunition as possible, while at the same time considering themselves non-partisan. Their long experience in government has taught them to know intuitively when to support a minister responsible for the department and when to back away if the minister is looking for partisan support.
The PCO published a document in 1990 on the role and responsibilities of career officials in relation to politicians. It states that it is the responsibility ”˜of individual public servants to provide advice and information to Ministers, to carry out faithfully the directions given by Ministers, and in so doing to serve the people of Canada. Public servants are accountable to their superiors and ultimately to their Minister for the proper and competent execution of their duties.’ Responsibility for providing information ”˜to Parliament and its committees rests with ministers.’
These quotations suggest that relations between civil servants and politicians have hardly changed since 1867. A number of other factors suggest a degree of stability in relations between the two groups. The basic departmental structure remains essentially intact, the merit principle still applies in staffing, and the bulk of the civil service remains largely non-partisan. The doctrine of ministerial responsibility may have faded in recent years, but it still applies. Most deputy ministers are still ”˜lifers.’ The civil service continues to be the chief nursery of senior bureaucrats, since the great majority of deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers come from within its ranks.
But beneath the surface things have changed, the most significant being a loss in confidence. One can also detect subtle but major shifts in relations between politicians and career officials. The latter are less assertive in their dealings with politicians, notably ministers, than was the case twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. There are signs everywhere that senior officials have started to accept the criticism of the late 1970s and early 1980s ”” that they held too much influence over both policy and government operations. They decided in the 1984 transition of power to hand over the policy steering wheel to the incoming government with the implicit message, ”˜Now you drive.’
The PCO rarely publishes ”˜How to’ documents. But it decided to do so to assist career officials in Crisis Management ”” the title of a publication. That publication declares that ”˜a crisis is a crisis when the media, Parliament and/or credible or powerful interest groups identify it as a crisis.’ Someone outside the civil service decides that a crisis exists ”” speaking truth to power turned on its head. Although each crisis is different, the media and interest groups react with ”˜predictable sameness.’ They want to blame someone and ask, ”˜When will the party at fault be fired [and] when did the organization discover the problem?’ The publication tells career officials that the usual arguments, for ”˜being silent must be resisted, such as the need to assemble more facts.’ They should ”˜take the initiative, make news.’ It adds, ”˜Do not hesitate to admit that you do not have all the answers,’ because ”˜a crisis is not the time to defend policies on the basis of a superior record or outstanding performance in the past.’ If nothing else, crisis management has forced career officials to shed some of their anonymity.
What about policy development? There are three routes: policies defined by the party in power; policies defined by the prime minister and a handful of advisers, including some senior ministers; and policy proposals that bubble up from departments.
Career officials are not present when political parties set out to define policies and their electoral platforms. As we saw above, policies are defined and packaged by a handful of advisers working with the leader. Once in power, a prime minister will turn to ministers and officials to implement the party’s policies. Career officials are quite good at doing what they are told to do, and the Liberal Red Book of 1993 is a case in point. Career officials kept a checklist of things to do flowing from those commitments and on implementation.
The problem, however, is that the civil service is rarely told clearly what to do. Even the Red Book exercise ”” one time when politicians came to office with a list of things to do ”” had its limits. The purpose of the Red Book was to draw attention away from the negative press coverage over Jean Chrétien’s alleged inability to articulate a vision for the country, to present new ideas, and to dispel the charge often heard in the early 1990s that he was ”˜yesterday’s man.’ Before Kim Campbell’s debacle in mid-campaign, public opinion surveys reported that Chrétien was found lacking on several fronts and that the media were portraying him as ”˜idealess Jean Chrétien.’ He and his advisers set out to deal head on with this charge and concluded that the Red Book would be the solution. It would draw attention to a series of campaign commitments and thereby suggest that Chrétien could indeed generate new ideas.
Quite apart from its true purpose, the Red Book had more success before Chrétien came to office than after. Once the party was in power, the book lost at least some of its relevance. Finance Minister Paul Martin instructed his departmental officials time and again to ignore it. Martin is quoted as telling his senior Finance officials, ”˜Don’t tell me what’s in the Red Book…I wrote the goddamn thing. And I know that a lot of it is crap…the Goddamn thing [was] thrown together quickly in the last three weeks of July. Things hadn’t been properly thought through.’ In any event, the government reneged on a number of commitments ”” both large and small ”” including the pledge to renegotiate NAFTA, to introduce daycare, to replace the GST, to strengthen the Department of the Environment, and to cut spending on outside consultants by $620 million annually, beginning in fiscal year 1995–96.
Once firmly in power, a prime minister and his or her court of advisers usually introduce new measures to fit emerging economic circumstances (hence the program-review exercise) or to pursue measures of strong interest to them ”” for example, Chrétien and the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, Mulroney and the Canada–US Free Trade Agreement, and Trudeau and constitutional patriation and the National Energy Program. When a prime minister decides that an issue or an initiative should be pursued, the role of career officials is clear: deliver the goods. They clear ”˜roadblocks,’ deal with constraint, and ensure that measures are implemented as envisaged. In some ways, then, they become accomplices to the prime minister and his senior advisers.
Exasperation with the policy-making process has pushed prime ministers ”” the only people with the clout to do so ”” to make policies by announcements. That is, the prime minister simply delivers a major speech to unveil a new policy (for example, Chrétien and the Kyoto Protocol) and then lets the policy process pick up the pieces. The process then follows the announcement. Canadians now recognize the power of the prime minister, and they will make every effort to harness it. For example, a group of concerned citizens from northern New Brunswick held a press conference to reveal that they had asked to meet the prime minister to ask that a stretch of road in their community be upgraded. A meeting with the provincial minister or, for that matter, the federal minister of transport would not do. If residents in a small rural community know where political power lies, so do MPs. They know that the prime minister can, at the stroke of a pen, or with a simple ”˜Yes,’ make things happen.
When this does not occur, then the process is porous and shared, and in such an atmosphere policy actors, including ministers, have influence, not power. Jean Chrétien left no doubt on this point when he observed: ”˜The
Prime Minister is the Prime Minister and he has the cabinet to advise him. At the end of the day, it is the Prime Minister who says, ”yes” or ”no.”’
Prime ministers know better than anyone else the price to pay for having one’s ideas go through the standard policy process. In many instances, an idea is reduced to the lowest common denominator among varying positions. The boldness found in initial policy proposals has been watered down, and decisions may well result from a need to arrive at an agreement. It may be described as a process of mutual co-optation. The department initiating the proposal has to put a fair bit of water in its wine to secure agreement. Consulted departments need to show that their presence in the process had some impact. Outside advisory groups also want to see their influence if they are to give the final measure a sense of legitimacy among interested parties. Ministers are not present in this elaborate process. They are briefed from time to time, and the PCO monitors proposals very closely as they are defined, if only to brief the prime minister.
Although recent developments have served to broaden their policy and program realm, senior career officials in Canada are less confident today than was the case forty years ago. The reasons for this change are varied. Because of more insistent media and laws on access to information, ministerial staffers are able to roam through departmental hierarchies to secure answers quickly. In addition, Canadian career officials, like public servants in other Anglo-American democracies, appear to have accepted the argument that bureaucrats had too much power. The decision by the clerk of the Privy Council to hand over control of policy to the incoming government in 1984 speaks volumes.
Institutional myths survive long after they have lost their power. The business of supply is central to the parliamentary system, and the standard belief is that Parliament scrutinizes the government’s spending plans and holds it to account for its actual spending. Parliament receives thousands of pages of information during the estimates process, but no one still harbours any illusion that the House has the capacity to grasp, review, criticize, or even support the government’s spending plans.
Question period provides good theatre, but little else. Television has transformed the exercise by placing a premium on ten-second clips that can grab the attention of news editors. Charges and accusations fly across the
floor, but neither the minister nor career officials ever seem to pay for mistakes. That serves to strengthen the perception that accountability is missing. Yet a culture of error avoidance permeates government operations and inhibits officials from being forthright about any shortcomings. Ministers are quite happy to see decisions sucked to the top of the organization to minimize the chances of administrative miscues.
And MPs readily criticize the failings of their own institution. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear an MP describe Parliament as ”˜a totally dysfunctional institution.’ The Ottawa-based publication Parliamentary Government published in 1995 a collection of comments and observations from MPs on the workings of the Commons. The following observation is typical: ”˜I’ve found being an MP in Parliament and Parliament itself more irrelevant than I thought.’
Donald J. Savoie is Clement Cormier Chair in Economic Development at the Universite de Moncton, and Senior Fellow of the IRPP. Excerpted from Breaking the Bargain, published in the fall of 2003 by University of Toronto Press. By permission of the author and the publisher.