Canada’s public servants are the neutral behind-the-scenes players who will help keep a minority government alive and out of trouble. But they will have to be fast, thorough, candid, make no mistakes, avoid controversy — and forget about big policy ideas.
That's a tall order for the slow-moving wheels of a bureaucracy, which prefers stability, continuity, long-term planning and avoids risks that could land them or a government in hot water.
“The agenda is political survival,” said Donald Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the Université de Moncton.
“Public servants will keep their heads below the parapet; provide policy advice; feed the beast in central agencies and Parliament. But there will be no market for bold ideas. Public servants read tea leaves better than anyone, and they know bold ideas don’t sell. Just keep the ship steady as she goes.”
But some public servants don’t buy the "myth" of playing it safe when serving a minority government in Parliament. They argue it could be a chance to shine with new ideas and approaches for implementing compromise deals that could be reached between the Liberals and NDP on pharmacare, housing, climate action or Indigenous issues.
“I think this an opportunity for public servants to engage on files and issues they haven’t had to in a while. You could worry about whether they still have the muscles for it, but maybe this is the way to find out. It could be a bit of a renaissance," said former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page.
Canada has had 13 minority governments, all since 1921. The longest stretch was three minority governments between 2004 and 2011, led by Liberal Paul Martin and Conservative Stephen Harper. They typically about last two years, but some were as short-lived as a couple of months, and the longest was the four-year minority led by Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Some minority governments have been productive. The Liberal Lester B. Pearson government transformed Canada in the 1960s with medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, a unified armed forces and a new flag. The Harper minority introduced an ambitious stimulus package that steered Canada through the 2008 global financial crisis stronger than other G7 countries.
Canada’s public service today is very different from the ones that served the minority governments of Martin and Harper. It’s bigger and slightly younger, with one in four joining since Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015. Their senior bosses, however, grew up under a Harper government that wasn’t interested in the policy advice of public servants.
The public service is no longer the only source of policy advice for ministers, and many argue that policy capacity was further atrophied by a decade of the Harper government. As one former bureaucrat said, speaking on condition on anonymity: “It’s difficult for the public service to flex muscles that it hasn’t had to use in while.”
“It is true that the focus of policy ideas and development has shifted away from the privileged position of the public service as custodian of all policy ideas,” said former Privy Council clerk Mel Cappe.
“But the premium on good policy ideas is greater now and especially since election night. So if they were as creative as they think they, are the government will grab their good ideas as their own. If the public service wants credit for good ideas, forget it. But if they let others take credit for their good ideas they will be successful.”
Policy making is also very different in a hyper-connected world of social media, big data, AI and information a Google search away. The trick for public servants today is using data to better understand the country’s regional and generational divides when crafting options on how to deliver policies.
David Good, a former senior bureaucrat and academic, studied the impact of minority governments on the public service. He found it typically has less influence on shaping policies because the commitments are worked out by the parties. This time, however, he noted that platforms are so vague that they will be relying on the public service to flesh them out and “turn political rhetoric into actions.”
Working in the shadows
Public servants have been working in the shadows for months, planning and preparing transition books and briefings for a new government. As polls put Liberals and Conservatives in a dead heat, planning shifted from a four-year mandate to what could be done in two years or less — while satisfying parties holding the balance of power.
They closely studied all party platforms and prepared for every possible governing configuration or contingency, including the full range of formal agreements or coalitions. Politicians lead on the policies, whether they come from the platform, negotiations or trade-offs with other parties. It’s up to public servants, however, to advise on the costs, practicality and pitfalls of those decisions before implementing them.
But Sahir Khan, of the Institute on Fiscal Studies and Democracy, said the Liberal platform is more like a fifth budget, which could be implemented within 18 to 24 months without big demands on the public service.
“I don’t think the platform was designed with a large burden on the public service,” he said. “I think they learned a lesson from the volume of commitments they made in 2015 and the complexity of implementing them, so they came up with something that could be implemented in a minority context.”
The cost of pharmacare, for example, is not included in the platform. The public service would have a major job designing a plan that includes costs, implementation and stickhandling federal-provincial relations. Some say former deputy minister of environment Stephen Lucas was moved to deputy minister of health in a late-summer shuffle for that possible eventuality. Colleagues describe Lucas as a "details guy" and consensus builder with a strong background in federal-provincial affairs.
Several senior bureaucrats said the public service wasn’t as ready as it should have been in 2015 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau led the Liberals from third place to an election victory. As a result, Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart, Canada’s top bureaucrat, is determined the public service is ready for any eventuality this time.
The clerk is a pivotal player who will be guiding all the stages — serving the caretaker government, forming the new government and serving that new government.
He must be seen as a neutral adviser and impartial arbiter. He is not only the deputy minister to the prime minister, secretary to cabinet and head of the public service, but could be asked by the Governor-General for advice on government formations.
“No other individual in the political or bureaucratic system has the overall vantage point of the clerk, or the responsibility to ensure that political government and the public service can work together to make government work,” Good said.
Those who have worked with Shugart call him cautious and seasoned, well-placed to form relationships of trust and respect with government and opposition leaders. He worked both as a political adviser and senior bureaucrat and will make sure the public service doesn’t “roll over and do whatever they are told.”
Shugart has spent nearly 30 years as a public servant, including three deputy minister posts, and before that worked as a Conservative staffer for prime ministers Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney and chief of staff to Tory cabinet minister Jake Epp.
“He’s very calm, deliberate and professional. He is a good truth teller, he briefs well and he instills confidence,” said a former deputy minister, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He’s mature and experienced, having served the political and public service sides, which gives him a sensitivity to the government and public service interface that not all people have. He will have all the range of possibilities covered.”
Partisanship heightens demands
The role of the public service doesn’t change with a minority, but the demands and pressure are heightened by instability, partisanship and the lack of stomach for mistakes in data, analysis or communications, said Sen. Tony Dean, a former cabinet secretary in Ontario.
Good said the work of public servants is significantly affected by the type or form of minority, how long it is expected to last, the personality of the prime minister and their relationship with the public service. Everyone is on high alert. The parties are still working as in an election campaign, constantly assessing public opinion, the mood of the electorate and braced for an election at any time.
“The demand for long-term policy will diminish and the demand for popular quick hits will rise. But that doesn’t mean the public service is less creative, it means the politicians are less ambitious,” said one longtime senior bureaucrat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The growing centralization of power in the PMO, which has blurred the lines between politics and public service over the last 30 years, is further amplified. Budgeting, decision-making and communications, already highly centralized, will be even more tightly controlled by the PMO and Privy Council Office.
PCO will be the nerve centre. Strong House leaders will become more important, as will PCO’s legislative and planning and machinery of government teams in managing the planning and guiding of legislation through Parliament.
There will be much more preparation and consultations for legislation, and greater focus on question period “so there are no surprises,” Cappe said.
But Good argues the partisanship is magnified because the rules for operating in a minority are unclear and largely unwritten.
Countries such as Scotland and New Zealand, where minorities are common, have developed rules, structures and mechanisms to guide how they operate. Canada still considers minority governments as exceptions and temporary.
PCO has various cabinet guides governing responsibilities and behaviour for ministers, political staff and bureaucrats, but none mention minority government. PCO publicly released the caretaker convention for the first time in 2015, laying out the dos and don’ts of public servants and ministers during an election. It also doesn’t address a minority.
Good said Canadians need written guidelines that lay out “every governing contingency” to ensure responsibilities and expected behaviours of all players are clear when forming governments, alliances or coalitions with parties.
That lack of clarity can undermine democracy, such as when Conservative leader Andrew Scheer — like Harper before him — wrongly claimed whoever wins the most seats in the election gets to form the government. Good argues Scheer knew better and couldn’t have distorted the rules for political advantage if they were written and plainly understood.
Good also said the personal style, predisposition and personality of the prime minister can’t be understated.
“There were important and significant differences between Diefenbaker and Pearson; Trudeau and Clark and Martin and Harper all of whom led minority governments,” Good said.
“The decision-making style of each prime minister; how he deals with cabinet and ministers and how he perceives the public service has an important effect on how the public service goes about its work, particularly at the most senior levels.”
PS in the crossfire
Backbench MPs, regional ministers and caucuses become more important and the public service is expected to deliver programs that are highly responsive to what they want for their ridings, regions and constituents.
Good said the public service isn’t exactly a “political punching bag” but is “caught in the cross-fire” of these pressures. As a result, it has to walk a fine line being “responsive" to what the government wants without becoming a promoter or cheerleader for its priorities.
A big risk of the single focus on short-term fixes is the short shrift given to long-term planning for the big policy issues facing Canada. Good argues the public service has to quarantine long-term planning to make sure it continues.
“The public service is the permanent custodian of the permanent problems ... Long-term problems like climate change, aging population, lack of innovation and regional divisions still have to be addressed whether by this government or the next. That work cannot stop.”
Good said a minority’s first round of policies are designed to be quickly implemented, but if the government survives it will need more. “Nothing is riskier to a minority government than not having an agenda,” Good said, but the second round of policies are usually more complicated, difficult to implement and fraught with challenges.
“Focusing on what is important can all too often be displaced by the distractions of what is urgent,” he said.
“This presents a major challenge for the clerk and his deputy ministers to ensure that sufficient and appropriate planning and policy work is undertaken to assist the prime minister and the minority government in fleshing out a viable policy agenda."
Good said over-the-top partisanship also increases the risk of political interference in public service matters or bureaucrats not speaking up or “speaking truth to power” for fear of looking like they are unwilling or resisting what the government wants to be done.
Good pointed to Harper’s cancellation of the mandatory long-form census, which Statistics Canada relied upon for its analytical work. The Conservatives were also called out for political interference in the firing of Linda Keen, president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and public showdowns with other senior bureaucrats.
“With the prospect of an election ever present, minority governments search for public positions on issues, large and small, that can be used to distinguish themselves from their opposition, including political positions on what traditionally are public service issues.”
There will be great pressure to spend or reallocate money to secure the support of MPs or opposition parties. Budgets require a confidence vote in the Commons and can trigger an election.
Good said minority governments tend to ignore the long-term costs of decisions, particularly now that the “bottom line anchor” of balanced budgets has largely been replaced by maintaining a sustainable debt-to-GDP ratio.
If spending cuts are needed, they turn to the public service for salary or hiring freezes or reviews to streamline and improve efficiency. Any cut to programs and services invariably triggers an opposition backlash that could escalate into controversy.
Editor's note: This piece was updated Saturday, Nov. 2 at 9 a.m. ET to correct the spelling of Senator Tony Dean's name.