There is plenty of evidence that the traditional understanding of
the complex relationship between politicians and public servants in
Canada has been disrupted by a number of factors. In fact, Paul
Tellier, the co-chair of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Advisory
Committee on Public Service Renewal has recently stated that relations
between politicians and the senior levels of the bureaucracy have never
been more strained and he would know having served as Mr. Mulroney’s
Secretary to the Cabinet in the mid 1980’s.
Paul Tellier could be referring to recent issues like the removal of
the chairperson of the Nuclear Safety Commission and of frictions
between the government and the chief electoral officer. He could also
be thinking of the confrontations between public servants and members
of some parliamentary committees. Unfortunately, these high profile
examples are only the tip of the iceberg.
Distrust between politicians and public servants is also apparent in
a number of provinces – including Saskatchewan – where a large number
of public servants have been dismissed following the recent change in
Let me first look at the reasons why we are experiencing this
tension today. I will then move on to discuss the characteristics of a
good working relationship, followed by a brief conversation about the
weak elements in the traditional Canadian model. I will complete my
remarks by looking at the so-called independent agencies that offer an
interesting perspective on the issue given their legislative structure,
and then by offering some conclusions.
Why such tension?
In my view, there are both long term and short-term trends at work.
Ezra Sulieman, a professor of politics at Princeton University,
noted in a recent book that “in almost all democratic societies we have
witnessed over the past two decades an incontestable phenomenon:
relentless attacks on and denigration of the state.” Why has the
bureaucracy served as the punching bag for so many would-be reformers
he asks? He points out, and I quote, that “the attacks on the
bureaucracy have largely come from the politicians, in part to ward off
attacks and to deflect criticism of their own incapacity to solve
society’s pressing problems. Instead, they turned their wrath and
frustration on their own state and on the way it was being managed.”
As James Q. Wilson noted in his well know 1989 book entitled, Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, and at the height of Reaganism in the United States, “no politician ever lost votes by denouncing the bureaucracy.”
There are a number of reasons for this development.
First, on a global scale, some have argued that the decline in
legitimacy is the result of the ascendancy of the so-called new public
management practitioners, who see government institutions as
organizations of questionable value.