Politicians and civil servants — the best of frenemies

It seems every time there’s a change of party in government, the newbies wonder about the neutrality of the bureaucrats
By Steve Paikin - Published on May 17, 2021
Ontario premier David Peterson (right), NDP leader Bob Rae, and conservative leader Mike Harris (left) at a leaders’s debate in August 1990. (Hans Deryk/CP)



One of the fascinating things about writing these columns is that we put them out there and are never really sure what will connect with the audience. Two weeks ago, I wrote about whether the civil service on Parliament Hill or at Queen’s Park has an ingrained bias towards Liberals and against Conservatives. Most Conservatives sure think it does. 

Ever since, I’ve been deluged with responses from former politicians and public servants eager to share their first-hand experiences on the subject. Did I see that coming? I sure didn’t. But it suggested there’s more to say on this topic. 

So here goes. 

This issue came up in the first place because of The Machinery of Government, a new book by University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Health, who argues the civil service has taken over many of the decision-making functions elected politicians used to do, in part because governing has simply become too complex. 

One 40-year veteran of the Ontario Public Service contacted me quite irritated about this notion. She has served under nine different premiers and in senior roles in numerous ministries and was adamant that the civil servants she knew provided unbiased, professional advice, without regard to the partisan stripe of the government of the day. 

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“All governments are the same,” she said, insisting on anonymity lest she endanger her career. “They all come in with a political agenda, without the benefit of objective advice and a full work-up of options and repercussions. And they’re all suspicious of the civil service at the beginning. They move too fast and sometimes make stupid mistakes. They assume the civil service is naysaying and delaying, but we’re just doing our job, which is to advise on the pros and cons of policies and initiatives, including whether an idea will give rise to good or bad press.”

The issue of how politicized the public service is arose in particular in 1985, when David Peterson’s Liberals took over at Queen’s Park after 42 straight years of Progressive Conservative rule. Liberals had often mused about the need to clean house, so convinced were they that the bureaucracy was teeming with Tories. 

A few days after he was sworn in as Ontario’s 20th premier, Peterson called a meeting of all the government’s deputy ministers, many of whom he thought were “Tories by osmosis — they were birds of a feather.” 

But Peterson surprised the mandarins. He started the meeting by apologizing to the group for any smart-aleck comments he might have made about them during his days as Opposition leader. 

“I respect you all 100 per cent as professionals,” he told them. “I’m not coming in to purge the public service.” 

Graham Scott was an Ontario public servant in the 1970s and 1980s and well remembers the opposition Liberals threatening to fire civil servants. “You will recall that the Peterson government thought the deputy ministers and senior leadership were biased to the Tories,” he wrote me. “Some were, but by far most were not. Effective leadership requires a healthy relationship between the minister and deputy minister on policy matters and this can be construed too easily as political bias on the part of a conscientious public servant.” 

In fact, that’s what Peterson ultimately found. He discovered the civil service was eager to help him implement his agenda. “I can’t think of a single example of anyone trying to screw us,” he told me in a phone call last week. 

While many Liberals before 1985 thought the public service was biased toward the PCs, some former Tory cabinet ministers thought the opposite. The late Keith Norton, who was a PC cabinet minister from 1977 to 1985, would regularly say to one obstinate assistant deputy minister in the Health Ministry: “I thought you were on our side.” 

It seems so much of this relationship is in the eye of the beholder. 

Peterson needed the civil service onside because he came into office with an ambitious to-do list, much of which was in an “Accord” that had been negotiated with the NDP (that party, then led by Bob Rae, held the balance of power in the minority parliament). A first-ever Freedom of Information Act, implementing public funding for Catholic schools to the end of high school, updating the French Language Services Act, improving pay equity, creating significantly more public housing, bringing in no-fault auto insurance, banning extra billing by doctors, eliminating OHIP premiums — it was an extremely activist government and required great co-operation from the civil service. 

“They responded extremely well to our initiatives,” Peterson now says. “They were fine public servants.” 

But international-trade lawyer Mark Warner, who ran for the Conservative Party of Canada in 2007, says he’s not surprised that Peterson got on so well with the bureaucrats. 

“I don’t think you can draw as many insights from [Bill] Davis-era PC versus Liberal debates,” he emailed me, “because I don’t think [Davis] really was all that conservative. So, a Davis-era deputy minister to vibe with the Peterson government isn’t really shocking in my opinion.” 

Peterson’s not buying that. 

“Davis believed in moderation in all things,” he said. “I was immoderate on everything. He was more temperate. I was more risky.” (For what it’s worth, I agree that Peterson’s first term was one of the most activist of any government in Ontario history.) 

But what happens when New Democrats win, as was the case in Ontario in 1990? At the time, Premier Bob Rae felt the public service was thwarting his efforts to implement his agenda, and so he installed his campaign manager, David Agnew, as the new top bureaucrat — the secretary to the cabinet (in other words, the premier’s own deputy minister). At the time, Rae was blasted for “politicizing” the civil service. 

“Thirty years later, I do continue to be bemused by the shock and outrage that greeted my appointment,” Agnew emailed me. “The Big Blue Machine had a much more integrated and subtle model of partisan control of the public service than anything found in the Rae years.” 

Agnew believes four straight decades of Tory rule led to “a meeting of minds” between the PCs and the civil service, so that stacking the bureaucracy with partisan Tories actually wasn’t necessary. 

“Perhaps David Peterson really thought he would have to clean out the upper echelons of the public service,” Agnew wrote. “But he was forgetting that the kinder and gentler form of [John] Robarts/[Bill] Davis Conservatism we had back then was not much different from his own politics.” 

Again, Peterson begs to differ. 

“It was a very different world before we got there,” he said. “Every employee in every liquor store in the province was appointed by cabinet. You got a liquor licence by hiring [Tory adviser] Eddie Goodman. I won’t say it was corrupt, but the cronyism was inherent.” 

Interestingly, I heard from two others who disagreed with Agnew’s view of how politicized the civil service was at the time. Ruth Grier, who became environment minister in the NDP government, told me, “And having been the [environment] critic for quite a while, I felt welcomed by staff, many of whom were environmentalists themselves.”

When I told our anonymous public servant quoted above about Agnew’s comments, she responded: “In my experience, the NDP government was very suspicious of us. Those were extraordinary views based on nothing. Every single government starts out suspicious of us. But they usually warm up over time.” 

It seems every time there’s a change of party in government, the newbies wonder about the neutrality of the bureaucrats. Such was the case again in 2003, when Liberal Dalton McGuinty became premier. 

“When we came back into government, folks were worried that the Ontario civil service was full of Tories,” recalled Peter Wilkinson, who became McGuinty’s chief of staff.  “How could we trust them to implement our agenda when they had spent the last eight years carrying out the [Mike] Harris/[Ernie] Eves agenda?”

And, yet, they did. Wilkinson established the ground rules going in. 

“The first is that the political people decide and the civil service advise and implement,” he said. “While the political side is trying to decide, all and any points are welcomed and should be shared. However, once the decision is made, it is made and not open to be relitigated.”

One aspect of this debate that generated a lot of feedback after the last column is whether the civil service prefers having Liberals to Conservatives in power. After all, governments led by Stephen Harper and Mike Harris had reducing the size of the public service as high priorities; in the 2014 election campaign, former Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak vowed to eliminate 100,000 positions in the broader public sector. Liberals, conversely, seem happier with bigger, activist government and a larger public service to match those ambitions. 

Sergio Marchi was a federal cabinet minister in the Liberal government from 1993 to 2003.  

“I know that both [Brian] Mulroney and Harper came to office very suspicious of public servants,” Marchi wrote me. “But based on my cabinet experience, this was misguided. My first deputy minister, for example, had PC roots, but served me extremely well. In Mulroney’s case, he ended up choosing a chief of staff (Derek Burney) who was a bureaucrat, who was credited with reorganizing his PMO with great effect.”

However, a former senior Ontario public servant, who’s worked for both PC and Liberal governments, wrote me this: 

“Conservatives don't generally accept advice, no matter how well-intentioned and helpful it is. But Liberals are consultative and stakeholder-focused to a fault. That means bureaucrats often start running the show in Liberal governments,” he emailed me. “Bureaucrats have a lot more say in Liberal governments, but at political cost to Liberals over the long run.” 

Environmentalist Kate Holloway, who ran for the Ontario Liberals in 2007, takes a somewhat tougher view. 

“Bureaucrats see elected politicians and their minions as pets that need to be coddled at best and restrained or trained at worse,” she emailed me. “My observation has been that they favour the status quo and their own fiefdoms, power and budgets, much more than they might harbour any partisan tendencies. Having said that, I have known many ‘crats’ who enjoyed working on innovative programs and policies, on things like green energy, green infrastructure, and climate change. In recent years these public servants might have favoured the Liberals because they didn't want to see those programs dismantled.”

At the end of the day, do public servants generally prefer having Liberals rather than Conservatives in power? Leave it to former Liberal MP Sheila Copps, who was deputy prime minister in the 1990s, to make Alex Trebek proud by offering the answer in the form of a question: 

“The question should be reversed: Do the Liberals believe in the public service more than the Conservatives? Herein you will find the answer to your question.” 

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