The Harper hit list: keeping track of the heads that have rolled

It is a central principle of our system of government that civil servants stay out of partisan politics and political masters respect the independent expert advice of the civil service.

It has never been a perfect division. Some bureaucracies have been controlling and thwarted good decisions. The BBC series Yes, Minister beautifully captured some of the drawbacks of the expert civil service in the machinations of the fictional Sir Humphrey. The classic line from Yes, Minister, ‘This government has the engine of a lawnmower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce,’ was once repeated to me by a frustrated Finance Minister, Paul Martin.

At its apex, Ottawa once had a superior civil service peopled with skilled mandarins. And we had quite excellent cabinet ministers who worked well with, and respected, the advice of their civil service. People like Harry Swain and Gordon Smith, former deputy ministers now living in Victoria, worked with a long list of ministers.

Not all relationships were perfect, but for many decades, Canada’s government could meet the Constitutional aspirations of ‘peace, order and good government.’ No longer.

Jim Travers of the Toronto Star recently described the Harper government’s attack on our institutions as ‘vandalism.’ The independence of the regulators and senior civil servants has never been so brutalized.

The list is long. The firing of the President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), Linda Keen, was one of the most egregious acts. When our MP Gary Lunn fired her in January 2008, she was acting to ensure public safety by insisting the Chalk River nuclear reactor live up to its licence requirements. Both the PM and Mr Lunn vilified her as though she was a Liberal partisan. She had merely been appointed by a previous Liberal government. The legislation that guided her actions required her to act to ensure reactors did not operate when out of compliance with licences. Attacking her with the charge she was insensitive to the needs of cancer patients, the government claimed getting the reactor on-line was a matter of life and death.

In the same way that a fire marshal cannot re-open a hospital if the sprinkler system isn’t working, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission had to comply with its Act. Firing Linda Keen was followed by amending the Act to require that the CNSC consider the needs to produce radio-nuclides for medical diagnosis. A year later, when the reactor broke down again, the government announced that producing radionuclides was no longer important.

Meanwhile, serious damage had been done to the principle of independent, arms’ length regulation. As Auditor General Sheila Fraser warned, it had a ‘chilling effect’ throughout the whole civil service. But the sackings were just beginning.

Anyone in the civil service who criticizes Harper government policy now realizes they are putting their job on the line. Here is a short-list of those who have been told they will not be re-appointed after becoming thorns in government’s side: Paul Kennedy, head of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission, Pat Stogran, Veterans Affairs Ombudsman, Peter Tinsley, chairman of the Military Police Complaints Commission who was investigating the torture of Afghan detainees, Marty Cheliak, the head of the Canadian Firearms Program who was actually shifted out of his position by the Harper government claiming he had to undergo routine French training. The head of Elections Canada, Philip Kingsley was hounded out of his role and his successor, Marc Mayrand, has been under fairly constant assault including a number of court cases against Elections Canada by the Conservative Party.

There have been other positions, simply eliminated by the government, so that a firing is not just personal–it ends the existence of a position in government. In that category, go Dr Art Carty, Science Advisor to the PM, Karen Kraft Sloan, Ambassador for Environment and Sustainable Development, Jack Anawak, Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs. That’s right. None of those positions exist anymore.

Public attacks on those who criticise form another list. The most prominent example was Richard Colwin, the Foreign Affairs official who was subpoenaed by the Parliamentary committee looking into Afghan torture allegations. He was attacked as though he was a Taliban stooge. One could add Rémy Beauregard who headed the NGO Rights and Democracy, run with a board appointed by the federal government with federal grants. He was hounded out of his job and then died suddenly of a heart attack following a board meeting.

Pubic resignations are rare. Munir Sheikh, Canada’s Chief Statistician (a role equivalent to Deputy Minister to Statistics Canada) had been prepared to implement a policy which he believed to be deeply flawed–cancelling the long-form census. But when Minister of Industry Tony Clement, to whom he reported, told the media that no one at Statistics Canada had warned him that the long-form census was critical, Sheikh felt he had no honourable choice but to quit. He had, of course, warned the minister that killing the census would undermine policy-making across the board.

Without good information, a government is flying blind. It’s like shutting down traffic control at the airport. What Munir Sheikh did encapsulates how the civil service is supposed to work. He made a case to Clement. The Harper government (rumour has it the order to kill the long-form census came directly from the Prime Minister’s Office) ignored his warnings. But he kept his criticisms to himself and would have implemented the change, if not for the fact that the Minister lied and said no-one had warned him.

The most recent loss and the one that prompted me to write about these disturbing assaults on the fabric of our institutions is that of Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page. The position was, ironically, created by the Harper government. It was part of the 2006 Accountability Act, but no one filled the position until Kevin Page was appointed in 2008. With a skeleton staff and a small budget, the PBO under Page has provided clear and transparent assessments of Canada’s fiscal policy and worrying trends. Page has been in a struggle with government from the beginning. He announced last month that he would not seek re-appointment when his term ends.

It is no wonder that morale in the civil service is at an all time low. People doing their job in an impartial way are treated as partisans and enemies. The atmosphere is toxic. Good people are leaving government. We are losing ‘peace, order and good government’ to a mood of oppression and fear. It does look a lot like vandalism.

Elizabeth E. May, O.C. knows her way around Ottawa. She served as Senior Policy advisor to the federal Minister of Environment 1986-88. She is leader of the Green Party of Canada.