Is Stephen Harper taking the “public” out of public servant?
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – The Conservative government’s quest for control is limiting the public service’s capacity to serve its important democratic function.
Mar 25 2013. By: Edward Greenspon Columnist
I’ve been giving some thought in recent days to the term public servant. It contains within it an elegant and necessary tension. For the “public” half or the “servant” half to be accorded undue weight skews the proper functioning of the kind of permanent, non-partisan public service that characterizes Westminster-style systems like Canada’s.
The hundreds of thousands of Canadians who work for governments, particularly those employed – in the evolving argot of recent decades – as knowledge workers or symbolic analysts or members of the creative class, are, in a sense, servants. They owe a duty of loyalty to carry out the programs and policies of the elected government of the day.
But they also have a broader public duty to the pursuit of truth and the open exchange of information integral to democracy. Thus we have Freedom of Information laws and whistleblower legislation. We also have public servants regularly appearing before Parliamentary committees, which tells us they are not meant merely to be seen and not heard. Rather, they are fair witnesses to facts and trends that shape the progress of the nation, laying down a base of understanding from which political discourse can flower.
The tension between their public and servant roles does not render their jobs impossible, merely challenging. In the normal run of things, governments protect them from the worst effects of this tension by listening to their advice, not disclosing it and not blaming them for decisions taken by the political class. All three, of course are periodically breached. The extraordinary resignation of the country’s Chief Statistician a couple of years ago flowed not from the government’s refusal to heed his advice on the census, but rather his minister’s mischaracterization of that advice.
Confident governments encourage their senior advisors to educate themselves and the public through constant dialogue. So long as this dialogue remains non-partisan, as it almost always does, it is wholly appropriate. Should it become partisan, it is equally inappropriate, and the public servant should resign.
In my experience, accusations of partisanship against public servants almost always reflect a failure of the political class to appreciate this necessary tension in loyalty. As a young reporter in Saskatchewan in the early 1980s, I watched the newly minted Conservative government of Grant Devine fire some public servants for having performed their duty toward the previous NDP government. One of those unfairly victimized was an economist in the Energy department named Wayne Wouters. He subsequently found work in the federal public service. Today, he serves Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper as Clerk of the Privy Council. What comes around doesn’t necessarily go around.
This past weekend spelled the end of the line for Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page. His was not a normal public service job in that it was meant to level the playing field to a degree between the information-rich executive and the information-poor legislature there to provide oversight.
Whatever its nature, the government’s attack on an office it created for the simple reason of it having become an inconvenient check speaks to the propensity of the executive to want to tilt the balance toward servants. Efforts to defang the PBO are especially disturbing when others in the traditional ranks of government appear increasingly constrained (economists, scientists, diplomats) in the information they are allowed to provide the public. The legislature is a representative extension of the people; it requires the tools to meet its institutional responsibilities.
In recent days, we have also seen the odd attempt to shift the balance from public to servant of government librarians and archivists. Who would have thought this particular class of quiet professionals could pose a danger, but some of their activities have been described in a new Code of Conduct as high risk. What are these activities, you may wonder? Teaching, attending conferences, speaking in public – even in personal time. Though it’s hard to imagine them being privy to any governmental secrets, they must seek permission up the ladder before engaging in any of these high risk activities. They are, after all, servants.
James Moore, the minister responsible for Library and Archives Canada, says he wasn’t consulted on the Code and that the organization is arm’s length to the government. Like Statistics Canada, I suppose. In any case, government ministers have not consistently invoked the arm’s length test when criticizing regulators and departments for pronouncements unwelcome by the centre. So perhaps Moore or others senior to him might want to let the Head Librarian and Archivist know the government of the day tilts in favour of freedom of expression for crew, even if some may possess dissident views on such subjects as the War of 1812.
It is completely reasonable for any government to communicate an expectation of confidential service from its officials. But there’s something in all this that evokes a strong quest for control over an appreciation for the delicate balance that best serves our democracy.
Edward Greenspon is Vice-President, Strategic Investments, of the Star. He is a former newspaper editor and Ottawa bureau chief. email@example.com
< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/03/25/is_stephen_harper_taking_the_public_out_of_public_servant.html >