A Neutral or Biased Public Service?

It was a damp day. Hard to tell whether you were walking through a soft rain or a heavy mist. So, when I walked soggily from the street into Ted Hughes’ office, and he said: “Better hang your raincoat in the hall – and you look as though you could handle a coffee,” I responded with speed.

With raincoat dripping contentedly on a coat stand, my eyeglasses cleared of steam, my notebook rescued slightly crumbled from jacket pocket, and a life-saving sip from a mug of coffee “black, no cream or sugar,” I was ready.

My first question was simple: “What can you tell me about the investigation you are conducting into the affairs of Premier Bill Vander Zalm regarding allegations of conflict of interest?”

“Nothing,” he said.


“Nothing to report to you. The Premier requested the investigation on behalf of the government. It would be most unethical for me to make it – or any part of it – it public.”

I should have known better than to ask the question because, having known Ted for a few years, I knew full well that ethics and open pride at being ethical were part and parcel of his daily make-up. When it was ready his report would go first to the government. He knew where his duty lay.

He wasn’t perfect, but in his life as a public servant, he never ceased preaching against what he called the growing tendency to weaken public service by permitting political party loyalty to become more important than the common good.

He didn’t have to like all the people he worked for, but he did owe them the best advice he could give. And, if they had broken any laws or had violated any ethical codes, he did not close a blind eye. At least one Premier and one Attorney General resigned after Ted Hughes investigated their ethical standards. And they were the first to know his findings.

In May 1996, in a Victoria speech to the Institute of Public Administration in Canada, Ted openly warned of the dangers to democracy when an opposition party wins an election after years in the political wilderness and then goes on a job replacement spree. He used as an example a Saskatchewan election in the 1980s and the “new” government’s decision to terminate the employment of many public servants on the grounds the incoming legislators had “lost confidence” in them.

While citing the Saskatchewan experience as “a stark example,” Ted warned of similar upheavals “across the provincial scene of our country … which leads me to the conclusion that the Canadian tradition of a neutral public service career is increasingly under challenge. It is not out of control but, the trend is there, and therefore, in my opinion, it is time for a forceful initiative to reverse it, to restate the virtue of the Canadian tradition, and to appeal to the reason and logic of our elected representatives so that they and the people they represent will appreciate that they all will be much better served by an adherence to the time tested procedures of the past rather than by moving step-by-step to gut one of the greatest safeguards of a vibrant parliamentary democracy.”

Although Ted’s speech made no direct reference to BC, it could have. The province underwent significant public service job changes when Dave Barrett and the NDP defeated W.A.C. Bennett after 20-years in power; and another, less than four years later, when Bill Bennett defeated the NDP and returned Social Credit to power for 15 years (11 with Bill Bennett and four with Bill Vander Zalm and Rita Johnston).

The NDP came back for a decade with four premiers: Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, Dan Miller, and Ujjal Dosanjh. Dosanjh was defeated and replaced by Liberal Gordon Campbell, followed by Christy Clark, who gave way to the NDP – which will soon be getting ready for another switch or more of the same.

Each time there has been a change of government there has been a public service shake-up. A major when the NDP ended 20-years of Social Credit and thought too many senior public servants had become Socred loyalists. When Bill Bennett took over part of his first year in office was spent gently removing from key positions the NDP appointments.

Ted Hughes died on January 17 after a brief illness. Along with several of his old Saskatchewan friends, I had been scheduled to lunch with him in The Shield and Dragon pub in my retirement residence at Berwick Royal Oak on January 4. Helen, his wife of 65 years, phoned to say Ted would be in hospital undergoing tests that day but that he would reschedule the lunch when he got home.

We always talked about politics, and I wanted to ask him if he’d changed his mind about public service. Back in 1991, he had felt the old essential neutral career rule was under serious challenge. Did he still believe “public employees have a duty to carry out government decisions loyally, irrespective of the party or persons in power and irrespective of their personal opinions?”

With a provincial election looming on not too distant horizons I wanted to ask if BC  had moved any closer in recent years to the old standard of a politically neutral public service or had drifted deeper into the dangerous waters of decisions biased by political party doctrine.

In his 1996 speech, he urged the need for continually striving to reach the day when “a superbly qualified professional public service” would be in place in this province to serve the elected representatives of the people and the public who elected them.” It was, he said “incumbent 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 would like to have asked for an update. But I know he faulted the politicians for the intrusion of partisan politics where none should be.  And I know he would have agreed with Cicero, who once wrote: “He removes the greatest ornament of friendship who takes away from it respect. The good of the people is the chief law.”

(Readers feeling a need for more detail on Ted’s remarkable life story should grab a copy of The Mighty Hughes by Craig McInnes published by heritagehouse.ca.)



  1. It was a stark juxtaposition for me to read this article after spending a couple of hours watching the proceedings in the U.S. Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

    The political partisanship that dominates American politics today will likely result in Trump’s acquittal regardless of his moral transgressions. Trump’s behaviour negates everything Judge Hughes stood for.

    I refer to him as “judge” because that is what he was in his former Saskatchewan days and that is how I knew him as a young reporter in Saskatoon.

  2. …..oh…and thanks for the Ted Hughes commentary….I’m with you….they don’t make em like him anymore I’m afraid…a man of great honesty, integrity, and sense of public service. He seemed to just KNOW the difference between right and wrong no matter what his file in front of him.

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