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Public servants and partisanship an evolving 21st-century problem

Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press Files</p><p>Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick appears before the House of Commons justice committee meeting on Feb. 21.</p>

Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press Files

Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick appears before the House of Commons justice committee meeting on Feb. 21.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/2/2019 (526 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As Canada’s top public servant, Michael Wernick was supposed to provide insight into the SNC-Lavalin fiasco in his appearance on Parliament Hill last week. Instead, he opened his appearance with a warning, sounding an alarm that Canadian political discourse is heading into a frightening place, stating he fears "assassination" and that "somebody is going to be shot" as the country heads into a federal election.

Wernick was heavily criticized for being too partisan, and for providing testimony that only muddied the waters further.

The job of the clerk of the Privy Council is supposed to be professional, non-partisan and objective. He is supposed to advise the prime minister and elected government officials how to manage the country. At least, that’s what it says on paper.

Many observers were critical of his appearance before the justice committee last week, however. His opening remarks were viewed as "politics of fear" by Wesley Wark, a leading expert on national security and a visiting research professor at the University of Ottawa.

Still others, including associate professor Emmett Macfarlane of the University of Waterloo, said Wernick’s testimony "gave the impression of the kind of circling-the-wagons effect."

In total, his comments were not easy to dismiss or ignore, and perhaps underscore just how fractured things are right now in Ottawa.

Of course, Wernick’s appearance at the justice committee coincided with the arrival of the United We Roll protesters on Parliament Hill. The convoy of truckers and oilfield workers, which originated from Red Deer, Alta., arrived in the nation’s capital in a bid to call attention to the plight of those unemployed by the downturn in the oil and gas industry and the failure of the Liberal government to gain traction on two important pipeline projects that would bring Alberta oil to international markets.

It was in this context that Wernick prefaced his opening statement. He spoke of his concerns about "the reputations of honourable people who have served their country — being besmirched and dragged through the market square… about the trolling from the vomitorium of social media entering the open media arena."

He spoke, without naming him directly, to comments made by Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk, who urged the convoy to "roll over every Liberal left in the country." Tkachuk has refused to apologize for his comments.

Wernick responded in his statement: "It’s totally unacceptable that a member of the Parliament of Canada would incite people to drive trucks over people, after what happened in Toronto last summer. Totally unacceptable, and I hope that you, as parliamentarians, are going to condemn that." In April 2018, a van was driven onto a crowded sidewalk in Toronto, killing 10 people and injuring another 16.

Wernick continued, saying Canadians don’t have to worry about the rule of law in this country in the SNC-Lavalin affair or in the criminal case against the military’s former second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman. He was adamant that ethical guidelines were followed.

So, is the clerk of the Privy Council non-partisan?

Well, it seems the expectation that he should be unbiased is changing. The late Canadian public administration guru Peter Aucoin suggested that the role of the top public servants is shifting, terming this new reality "promiscuous partisanship." The idea is that civil servants fervently support the government of the day at the risk of sounding partisan, until the next government is formed. Then they just as fervently offer the same support for the next set of ideas.

And before Conservatives get too chippy, they should be reminded of Wayne Wouters, the Privy Council clerk under former prime minister Stephen Harper, who was also castigated for being too partisan in a 2014 study released by the think tank Canada 2020. Wouters was taken to task for his battle with then-budget officer Kevin Page when Wouters defended the Conservative government’s decision to block the release of details on $5.2 billion in spending cuts.

Tasmanian researcher Dennis Grube says this type of partisanship is exacerbated by the 24-7 news cycle, in which the public servant is increasingly the public face of government. In years past, their words of counsel may have been provided in private and with anonymity; now, they are being asked to speak in front of committees and in front of cameras and reporters as the desire for public transparency grows.

Grube suggests that if governments increasingly are expecting public servants (in this case, Wernick) to take on public roles, then our "Westminster tradition needs to catch up with the new realities of practice and evolve some conventions that allow civil servants to fulfil their public roles without being targeted with allegations of partisanship."

As political observers, we’re forced to sit back and try to parse it all in order to understand what is truth and what is partisan.

Shannon Sampert is a political science professor at the University of Winnipeg.

Twitter: @paulysigh


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