Diminishing Trust in Public Service

The revolving door designed to provide compensated exits for senior public servants and easy entrances for hand-picked, politically-correct replacements, is now activated.

It will take some weeks, and hefty payouts, to process selected Liberal administration personnel departures and NDP arrivals, which is mildly surprising considering transitional firing and hiring has been around for some time.

And, each time it has been used, trust in the public service – pledged to faithfully serve governments regardless of political stripe – is eroded.

Back in 1996, I was privileged to hear Ted Hughes OC, QC review the weakening condition of once-proudly neutral public servants at both federal and provincial levels in Canada. The title of his speech to the Victoria Branch of the Institute of Public Administration (IPAC) was Political Neutrality and Political Rights – Rebalancing the Scales.

He opened with a brief review of what had happened in his former stomping ground of Saskatchewan when in the early 1980s Allan Blakeney’s NDP government was defeated and Grant Devine’s Progressive Conservatives assumed power. It was, Ted reported with modest understatement but scalpel-like accuracy, “a time of some disruption in the province.”

Premier Devine, ignoring 40 years of politically neutral public service in Saskatchewan – and most of the rest of Canada – was determined to re-shape his neutral public service with a Conservative tilt.

Ted read from a report by professors Michelmann and Steeves, University of Saskatchewan: “Rather than seeing the public sector as a vibrant, progressive servant of the people they (Devine and his MLAs), while in opposition, were inclined to characterize it as an overblown leviathan, staffed with numerous political hacks, unaccountable to the people and given the proclivities of the (governing party) undermining the liberties of Saskatchewan people.”

It is worth remembering his warning of 21 years ago: “The Canadian tradition of a neutral, career, public service in Canada may be increasingly under challenge … It is not out of control but the trend is there … In my opinion, it is time for a forceful initiative to reverse it, to restate the virtues of Canadian tradition and to appeal to the reason and the logic of our elected representatives so that they, and the people they represent, will appreciate that they will all be better served by an adherence to the time-tested procedures of the past rather than moving step-by-step to gut one of the greatest safeguards of vibrant parliamentary democracy.”

This past week I called Ted to ask him if he thought we had made any progress in the past 21 years in re-establishing faith in a public service designed to offer politically neutral advice to any duly-elected government. “I don’t think so,” was his softly spoken answer.

In my opinion, (not to be confused with Ted’s) in British Columbia the loyalty of the public service to the elected government and the people has been in question since 1972 when the NDP brought an end to 20 years of Social Credit rule by W.A.C. Bennett. After a nervous takeover, the new government launched a weeding out of high-placed civil servants they feared would remain loyal to Social Credit and W.A.C.

When son Bill Bennett defeated the NDP in 1975, the civil service purge went into reverse as his administration sifted out NDP appointees for replacement by more “trustworthy” candidates. The revolving door spun, inexorably, and the public service could no longer claim genuine political neutrality.

The NDP followed Social Credit in 1991. The revolving doors spun … senior bureaucrats out, shiny new party faithful in. There were 10 years of relative bureaucratic stability as New Democrats went through four successive premiers – Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, Dan Miller and Ujjal Dosanjh. In 2001, the doors spun again as Gordon Campbell’s Liberals began what would be 16 years of continuous power culminating with the defeat in May of Premier Christy Clark.

With the NDP now replacing the Liberals the door is swinging yet again to confirm that in BC loyalty to party will continue to replace merit as the standard for success and promotion in public service.

Back to Ted Hughes who ended his 1996 speech with an appeal to IPAC and an acknowledgment of the personal sacrifices made by dedicated public servants. “They have a duty to carry out government decisions loyally irrespective of the party or person in power and irrespective of their personal opinion.” Tough choices, especially if a newly-elected boss is appointing a party supporter to be in charge of your policy team with party loyalty as a job requisite.

The old loyalty rules governing middle and senior management have been replaced by partisan politics. “The balance,” Ted told his IPAC audience, has been tipped and “the scales are now somewhat out of balance … the Canadian tradition of a neutral, career, public service is becoming increasingly under challenge.”

His final advice was to governments new and old that push public service to ever lower standards of political neutrality: “You and I know,” he told IPAC, “that politics in British Columbia is a deadly serious business – it is no game. If I am correct in that, then if a superbly qualified professional public service is to be in place in this province to serve the elected representatives of the people and the public who elected them, is it not incumbent – if not imperative – to foster a neutral public service where purges will not be the order of the day when a government changes, but rather where continuity will abound, where merit will be awarded and morale maintained at a high level? I hope so.”

I would hope so, too, but pessimistically.

(It is hard to believe that some readers may not be familiar with Ted Hughes,Order of Canada, Queen’s Counsel. But,just in case, a Google of his name will demonstrate why he is worth listening to.)

2 comments

  1. Aside from the immorality and democratic harm of changing the civil service along with the government there is a direct cost to taxpayers. In Saskatchewan we have many Crown corporations, the CEOs of which pull in several hundreds of thousands a year.

    When the government changes and they’re fired severance packages can top half a million each.

    As for Ted Hughes I recall his being appointed to the bench by John Diefenbaker in summer 1962 and my interviewing him in his office that morning. He was only 33 and I was only 20. I’m 75 so he’d now be 88.

    Later I would cover him in court and ever since I’ve paid close attention to his illustrious career.

  2. As a long time (35 year) public servant, I find it very unreasonable that political staff in Ministers’ offices are considered part of the public service and upon the change in government are given severance as per the rules governing the public service. When did this happen?? They are politically appointed and should not receive any compensation of any sort when their party of choice loses the confidence of the voters or the house. Shameful.

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