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A Lot Of The Action Will Be Taking Place On The Hill


The Hill Times
July 5, 2004


Federal bureaucrats can expect their political masters to keep them on an even tighter leash than usual now that the Liberals have been reduced to a minority.


That’s because Liberal ministers and their phalanx of loyal staffers will be that much more motivated to avoid any hint of scandal or problems that could hobble or even bring the government down.


“It’s going to affect [the public service] in the sense that everything is going to be very carefully-watched by the government,” acknowledged Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor specializing in public administration at Carleton University in Ottawa.


“In a minority government situation there is no room for error. There is going to be a great deal of control, particularly over external communications and new programs and policies and new spending,” he added.


The actions of bureaucrats, particularly those who must deal with media, are already greatly controlled.  So-called “media lines” are drafted on virtually every issue and policy being handled by the government which public servants are not allowed to stray from. It’s expected even more attention will be brought to bear on this process.

This, in turn, will bring added pressure on an already embattled bureaucracy, one that has also been under the gun from having to implement Prime Minister Paul Martin’s sweeping reforms to the machinery of government which affected about one in four federal public servants.


Over the past six months, the Liberals have also been highly critical of the actions of public servants – particularly those linked to the sponsorship scandal – and launched a dizzying number of spending reviews to rein them in to find savings and eliminate low-priority programs.


Mr. Martin famously blamed the sponsorship scandal on a small group of about 14 rogue bureaucrats, and “mechanics, ”who were “engage[d] in a very sophisticated way of camouflaging what they were doing.”


On the bright side, a minority government could reinvigorate a public service which some insiders say has been asleep for the better part of the last four years, ever since former prime minister Jean Chrétien began musing about leaving politics before the

2000 election.


Indeed, some previous minorities have been very forward-thinking and active on the policy front, such as the two led by former Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson during the 1960s which built the foundations of Canada’s welfare state.

Those minority government were helped along by the NDP which held the balance of power.This time around, however, the Liberals and their 135 seats won’t be able to form a majority with the NDP which won only 19 seat.


This could complicate the political landscape yet further.  “We have the real possibility - although just barely at 154 seats - of a 1972- style activist government,” noted Prof. Malloy.


Because all four parties with seats in the Commons will be factors, ministers and the senior bureaucrats who work under them, especially senior officials in the Privy Council Office led by clerk Alex Himelfarb, will have to manage a number of competing agendas.


Michael Teeter, a principal for the government relations firm Hillwatch Inc., said the gaze of civil servants, normally focused inward on the centre of government and on the central agencies like PCO and Treasury Board, will now drift to Parliament Hill where a lot of the action will be taking place.


“When Parliament returns they’ll have to be on the lookout of deals made on the floor of the House of Commons a lot more. Then the bureaucrats are left trying to figure out how to administer and implement things that have been done very quickly. It’s a massive challenge for everybody,” he said.


The one thing public servants shouldn’t be worried about is job security, unless the Liberals try to placate the Tories by giving in to some of the rightwing party’s ideas about shrinking the federal government.


Unlike the Conservative election plan which talked about the need for cutbacks, the Liberals proposed a big government agenda.


“Under the Liberals the federal government will be growing more rapidly than the economy,” said economist Dale Orr of Global Insight in an interview mid-way through the election on the Grit platform. 


Though this won’t lead to any job cuts, it won’t necessarily lead to more hires either, added Mr. Orr.


“When you look below at the Liberal spending plan it’s not clear that the number of bureaucrats will increase. There are spending it on transfer payments and some back to the provinces. At first glance it’s growing in terms of the amount of money being spent by the federal government.  But if you have images of all sorts of more public servants and more buildings in Ottawa that’s not necessarily the case,” he said.


The core public service is about 165,000 people strong. This doesn’t include thousands of other bureaucrats employed for various federal agencies (66,000), Crown Corporations (88,000), and the military (60,000).




The Hill Times


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