Monday, November 02, 2015

Now They Notice? Too Little, Far Too Late. Give Them the Sack.

Almost from the day he ascended to power, Stephen Harper has held the public service, and most other government institutions, in a choke hold. Harper, the Great Corrupter, transformed government institutions into his personal, partisan political agencies.

Everything was skewed from the National Energy Board to the federal Competition Bureau (see the previous post on the looming collapse of Canada's newspaper chains).

Now we get word that in May, almost a decade on, top bureaucrats met to discuss "creeping politicization" of the public service.

As a new Liberal government takes the reins this week, Canada's top bureaucrats are looking for ways to purge partisan politics from the shell-shocked public service.

The highest echelon of the bureaucracy met in the spring, before the election was called, to discuss ways to insulate public servants from intense pressure to be "promiscuously partisan" instead of neutral in carrying out the government's agenda.

Ralph Heintzman, a research professor at the University of Ottawa, has cited the example of a communications directive requiring bureaucrats to refer to the "Harper government" in news releases, rather than the government of Canada.

Other examples include a request last year that departments send retweets promoting a family-tax measure not yet passed by Parliament, including a hashtag with the Conservative slogan #StrongFamilies, and public servants working overtime to create promotional videos about child benefits, spots that prominently featured Pierre Poilievre, the employment minister.

"For anyone who cares about the condition of our federal public service, this is a very depressing story," Heintzman wrote about the "Strong Families" tweets last April, a month before the deputy ministers' meeting.

What's wrong with this story? Just about everything. The mandarins are running for cover. They failed to stand up to Harper. They chose not to defend the public service over which they presided. They allowed themselves to be intimidated into colluding with a corrupt government. They abandoned their responsibility to the nation and the Canadian people and they now, unforgivably and outrageously, depict themselves as victims.

I've had veteran public servants tell me of the Harper culture of intimidation that set in where they became fearful of even telling the truth lest it put their jobs in jeopardy. They saw too many others lose everything for not parroting the party line, not going along to get along while advancement was reserved for sycophants. They knew there was no one above them willing to stand up for them and so they toiled on, hoping not to be noticed. 

These top bureaucrats should be required to submit letters of resignation on the swearing-in of Canada's new prime minister and Trudeau should not be timid about accepting them.


Toby said...

"These top bureaucrats should be required to submit letters of resignation on the swearing-in of Canada's new prime minister and Trudeau should not be timid about accepting them."

Absolutely. Those who don't go voluntarily should be pushed.

Cathie from Canada said...

So, after ten years of firings and dismissals, NOW they're concerned about "politicization" of the civil service?
How coincidental -- just when the Liberals are taking over and some of the top deputies might actually lose their jobs due to their pandering to the Harper Cons. I hope the Trudeau PMO sees this for what it is -- another "ain't nobody here but us chickens" moment.

Anonymous said...

The public service under the direction of prison warden Stephen Harper, and assistant warden, the Clerk of the Privy Council, became a sort of psychology experiment, taking on some of the characteristics of the Standford Prison Experiment. Now that the warden has been fired, I agree that the senior guards should be fired.

The Mound of Sound said...

I don't want the miscreants sacked to be punitive. I just think that they're a huge impediment to the restoration of an independent public service. They're compromised - bent nails. They're not the sort of leadership we need for a quick and thorough rehabilitation. How can their subordinates look to these people, who failed in their duty to stand up for them over this awful decade, for guidance? And I don't think this rot is limited to the civil service. It extends into the military and the state police agency, perhaps even more deeply.

Anonymous said...

"I don't want the miscreants sacked to be punitive."

Why not? They were conscious of what they were doing (at least, I think they were). As always, you make a good point, Mound, and then you back away from it. Stockholm syndrome?

How about public head shaving for collaborators? It worked for the Dutch.

The Mound of Sound said...

Well, Anon, I'll tell you why not. Every incoming government would then be tempted to take indulge in a bit of bloodletting. This is about the individuals who failed their subordinates, the nation and the Canadian people by collaborating with some pretty reprehensible people. It's not about punishing them but clearing the way for a better crew who, you hope, do understand that they serve the public and serve the government only to give it the best possible advice and assistance they can within the framework of their duty.

It's about keeping this business objective, not subjective which appeals to the nastier instincts in the newly empowered.

Anonymous said...

"It's about keeping this business objective, not subjective which appeals to the nastier instincts in the newly empowered."

By all means, let's keep this business objective.

the salamander said...

.. well said Mound ... and not just this essay.. but the related ones you've delivered..
Canadians need to be coherent, alert, aware, informed.. and active.. in defense of our country.. and defining our country. Sweep the highroad.. don't get bogged down in the primordial partisan evangel muck with Harper Novak Levant Flanagan Nicholson MacKay Hamilton et al.. They're already old stale toxic news.. Gather up the country, pull it together, marshall our resources, polish our greatest assets and attributes.. hold them high. We could start with our Vets, teachers, biologists, elders, children, doctors, firefighters, lumberjacks, farmers, fishermen & women, First Nations, artists... and not look back .. What is our next move? Who to trust? what is the climate telling us? Are we listening or watching tv sitcoms and faux reality? Is media feeding us pablum or the real deal? ... Are we really 'glowing hearts' ? Or just gasbags like our previous so called 'leaders' ? I think I know the answer to that.. but talk is cheap... So lets 'deal' & get real ... wake up and never let creeps get their hands on this country again...

Scotian said...

On this you speak for me with the same reasons I would be giving. The top layer of the civil service has much to answer for, although I suppose I can feel some sympathy being caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, but that doesn't change the reality that comes form the choices they made. I'd be fine with giving them early retirement instead of firing, let them keep some dignity so long as they were gone, but if they fought it then firing is certainly not unreasonable. You know I'm a process geek, and what was done to our professional civil service by the Harper regime was one of my most central reasons for fighting Harper from the outset onward.

I do have some sympathy for those at the top who failed to stick up for principles and their profession because 'lets be perfectly clear' here, Harper was weeding through them quite ruthlessly and their getting in the way wouldn't accomplish much at all in the end except their removal. That being said though, as you so correctly noted they are clearly fundamentally compromised now for the rebuilding of said civil service, and that is not something that can simply be overlooked either. So give them retirement, even early retirement, but get them out of there, it is too late for them now IMHO.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, Scotian, I believe you're right. Early retirement as quickly as qualified successors can be identified and screened. It's akin to pressing the "reset" button. It is to the mandarins that we entrust the public service and they must protect it from the excesses of their political masters. When they fail in this they leave their subordinates fearful and ineffective.

In the not so distant past the "brass" of both the military and civil service understood their obligation to resign in protest when that was necessary for them to speak out and, when they did, they were heard. It reminds me of Rear-Admiral William Landymore who resigned over Hillier's unification of the armed forces. A farewell parade was held for the admiral who ended it by telling his officers and men that his fight was his own, not theirs, before ordering them to get back to the service of the navy and their country.

The Mound of Sound said...

Scotian, after my reference to Rear-Admiral Landymore I realized I hadn't thought of him for many years, certainly not since his death was announced about 8-years ago. It brought back a lot of memories. I was in the RCAF at the time and the idea of giving up our traditional blue barathea uniforms for what looked like US Army green with gold insignia was tough to accept but it was helpful to know that Landymore, while specifically standing up for the navy, spoke for us all in a way.

Even today's RCAF uniforms are hardly any better. They're Greyhound bus driver blue, still with garish gold insignia. I cringe a little bit when I see them in news clips.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Sal. I've been mulling over your question, "who to trust?" In a situation as urgent as this you have to take people at least somewhat at face value. Trust has to be earned but you can't expect the trust of your people without giving them reason to trust you. Trust was not something that held any currency for Harper. He trusted almost no one which undermined the civil service and impaired their ability to serve the country. You don't have to give unqualified trust to people but you do have to give them the benefit of the doubt, a degree of ab initio confidence, as a starting point and allow them to earn a reciprocal trust from there. It's a tough and protracted process that's doomed to failure without good faith.

Scotian said...


Part of my sympathy is because these days they could have resigned en mass and given the level of media control that government and its allies in the corporate world would have washed away the impact, unlike your example of Rear-Admiral Landymore. That was a different time indeed, I am just old enough to remember what it was like, and even as recently as the Chretien/Martin years I believe that such resignations would have had impact and been reported on as such. What I saw in the Harper years though, and the active enabling of its agenda and the massive ignorance of basic civics promoted to allow Harper to retain his power (I have never forgotten how the "coup attempt" of 2008 was allowed to go essentially unchallenged in any serious manner by the collective Canadian media, and I believe that shows the civil servants resigning en mass might not have done any good either) is part of why I think it if anything such resignations, especially en mass might have made the civil service matters worse, it would have made it that much easier for Harper to rewrite it to suit himself than it already was. That is why I can have sympathy for them but also recognize their choices, even if they were trying to save what they could, have long term consequences that preclude them from staying on now that the Harper regime is no more.

Please note I am not assuming this more noble motive is the norm with these at the top, simply that I can see it being possible, and that it would have a basis in reality if so. Regardless of motivations though, these people are as you rightly noted fundamentally compromised because of what happened in the Harper years, and if we are to truly rebuild the civil service back into the professional institution that stayed out of partisanship as it once was, these people simply cannot be a part of it, anymore than you rebuild an army with those broken by the horrors of combat and fled the battle because of that breakage in charge of it.

Dana said...

Perfect irony.

The Mound of Sound said...

Irony, Dana? I think the term would be 'unmitigated gall'or 'rank hypocrisy.'