Caught in the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Canada’s top civil servant should help us understand his job, expert says

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Caught in the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Canada’s top civil servant should help us understand his job, expert says


OTTAWA—Canada’s top public servant should explain how he balances his role as the non-partisan head of the bureaucracy and the prime minister’s deputy, according to one expert on the country’s public service.

Prof. Donald Savoie, one of Canada’s preeminent scholars on the public service, said that following reforms initiated in 1989, the role of the Privy Council clerk — the nation’s top bureaucrat — has changed and he or she now walks a delicate line between public service neutrality and responsibility to the government of the day, whatever its stripe.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, stands with Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick during a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on March 1, 2019.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, stands with Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick during a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on March 1, 2019.  (Justin Tang / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick — who has faced allegations of partisanship and opposition calls for his resignation over his testimony and role in the SNC-Lavalin affair — should tell Canadians how he manages to strike that balance, Savoie said.

“I think he owes it to the public service to explain how he squares the … roles,” Savoie, who teaches public administration at the Université of Moncton, told the Star on Thursday.

“I would be careful, however, to say that Wernick became partisan. I don’t think we can accuse Wernick of being partisan … but I would say, though, I’m sure he has an explanation,” Savoie added.

“So let’s hear it, how he squares the role of deputy minister to the prime minister with his other … responsibilities.”

Wernick will have a chance to publicly do just that. On Thursday, the House of Commons’ justice committee summoned him to testify on the SNC-Lavalin affair for a second time.

His testimony was a shocking development in the crisis facing the Liberal government, with Wernick firmly denying that former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould faced any “inappropriate” pressure to give SNC-Lavalin a deal to avoid criminal fraud and bribery charges.

Because his testimony largely matched the Liberal government’s version of events at the time, and because he suggested a Conservative senator should be condemned for using violent political imagery in a speech, pundits accused him of partisan support for the Trudeau government.

But the modern position of clerk actually combines three roles, Savoie said: the secretary of cabinet, the head of the non-partisan public service, and the deputy minister — or top bureaucrat — to the prime minister.

The three roles were combined into one position in the Public Service 2000 under reforms initiated by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1989 — part of a reimaging of the role and function of the public service that took place in the United States and the United Kingdom around the same time.

It was a monumental shift that public governance researchers are still writing about today. One of the criticisms of the reforms was it encouraged senior public servants to engage in “promiscuous partisanship” in the words of the late scholar Peter Aucoin — a blurring of the line between the rough-and-tumble of politics and the dispassionate execution of the government’s vision.

Savoie said he didn’t agree with the changes in 1989 and he doesn’t agree with them now.

“I’m not sure it was ever tenable” for the three responsibilities to rest with one person, Savoie said.

Wernick’s next appearance at the justice committee is scheduled for Wednesday. He will likely face a kind of cross-examination in the light of Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, which filled in more details about Wernick’s role in the still-unfolding scandal.

A spokesperson for the Privy Council Office said Thursday that Wernick, who was present at Trudeau’s mini-cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall Friday morning, will not be speaking with the media.

“The clerk has provided testimony to the justice committee and has indicated that he will co-operate with the ethics commissioner,” wrote Stephane Shank in an email to the Star.

“The clerk has no further comment to provide at this time.”

Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier





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