I have been increasingly alarmed by what I think is a fundamental re-structuring of the internal workings of government. It is hard to create public awareness of the issue because it requires a very boring dissertation on how things used to be. Certainly, I do not think I will be seeing any newspaper headlines proclaiming “Privy Council Office role now dangerously altered!” The first question will be “what is the Privy Council Office?” And the second, “who cares?”
The basics go back to the line between what is political (elected people) and what is non-partisan (the civil service.) I could go back to discussions of the role of the Prime Minister, who in the early days was a Cabinet member with a portfolio like everyone else (usually Justice Minister and doubling as Prime Minister). The Prime Minister is, in theory, “first among equals.”
There wasn’t such a thing as a powerful Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) until Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister, but since 1940 there has been an office to coordinate the civil service, the Privy Council Office (PCO).
The role of the Privy Council Office is to provide non-partisan advice, over-see the civil service and provide a sound basis for public policy. It must maintain a complete distance from partisan control. I recall Alex Himelfarb, when he was Clerk of Privy Council (the title for the head of the civil service, essentially Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office) referring to the critical division between the PMO and PCO as a “Chinese firewall.” Messages could pass in between PMO and PCO, but the Privy Council Office could never be allowed to become a tool of the political arm (PMO).
It is a tricky relationship. Obviously, civil servants must take instructions and implement policy under different political masters. So when a civil service is under Progressive Conservative instructions from Brian Mulroney, for example, (or more accurately, Kim Campbell) one day and then under Liberal Jean Chretien the next, the civil service must pull together the appropriate advice and fulfill the direction based on instructions from the political masters.
What is not acceptable is for the PCO to “cook the books” to help buttress a political argument. The PCO has to stick to the facts, not invent them for the government in power. Which is exactly what I think is now happening.
The firewall between PMO and PCO is down.
Public policy making is now only a shadow of good government. The outward appearance of a functional Cabinet government supported by a non-partisan civil service is being maintained, but the reality is that nothing is normal.
What makes me think this? Some examples come to mind.
Other things that make me think the government is not functioning as it should come from many conversations I have had with Ministers in Cabinet. Without betraying personal conversations, it has been clear to me over and over again, that they do not know what is going on in their departments. When I worked for Tom McMillan, Minister of Environment in Mulroney’s government, no branch would have been laid off or key roles re-assigned, that the Minister had not weighed all the options and made a decision after long discussion with his senior civil servants. He would have known what was going on. The current role of Ministers appears to have been reduced to the role of “chief spokesperson” for their portfolio. Hand them the cue cards to deliver the approved message and off they go. But I do not think most Ministers in Mr. Harper’s Cabinet are actually involved in the decision-making. I think the exceptions to the rule make a short list — Rona Ambrose (who is doing a very credible job cleaning up various messes), Jason Kenney, James Moore, and Jim Flaherty, but even they can be over-ruled by the PM. True Cabinet decision-making appears to be a thing of the past.
My sense is that decisions are made by Stephen Harper alone. He dispatches orders directly to the Clerk of Privy Council, who sends instructions to the Deputy Ministers. The Ministers are handed the talking points to explain decisions they didn’t make.
What this means is that the civil service is completely corrupted by political pressure. The first phase of this process was the muzzling of scientists, then the massive lay-offs, ensuring that morale is at an all time low. The next step was to ask for reports that make a certain point, instead of asking for an objective assessment of the evidence. Government reports are no longer non-partisan. If I am right, the situation is very dangerous. And it is even more dangerous because it is invisible – in plain sight.