Canada’s unofficial (and unelected) opposition

Former high-ranking civil servants are outspoken critics of the Harper government

The unofficial opposition

Photo by Blair Gable

For a particular set of policy wonks—generally identifiable by the telltale pallor and redness around the eyes that come from too many hours scouring spreadsheets—the recent news that Philip Cross is leaving Statistics Canada was big. The 36-year stalwart of the federal number-crunching agency, most recently its chief economist, has long been a prized source of analysis on questions from the depth of recessions to the problems of productivity. But Cross’s exit, prompted in part by his frustration with the Conservative government’s controversial 2010 decision to cancel the long version of the Canadian census, fits a pattern that has political implications beyond arcane economic debates. He is only the latest in a string of top former public servants to join what amounts to an extra-parliamentary unofficial opposition.

In policy disputes over deficit financing or defence procurement, the government’s stance on the Middle East, or its response to an aging population, the most cogent criticism increasingly comes from independent-minded lapsed bureaucrats. Unlike university professors or think-tank researchers, former mandarins bring insider intelligence on how federal policy is really made. The civil servant colleagues they leave behind keep them up to speed on new developments. All of that can make their critiques more intriguing to the media and, for beleaguered politicians, harder to dismiss. In past eras, retirement often cut them off from timely information sources and avenues for disseminating their views. No longer. “We now have the Internet and blogging and tweeting,” says Scott Clark, a former deputy minister of finance. “All that stuff allows people to do it so easily.”

By “it,” Clark means the kind of probing analysis that he and another top former finance official, Peter DeVries, produce for their website, 3D Policy. As two of the most seasoned budget-makers in Ottawa before they left the public service a few years ago, their typically unsupportive appraisal of Stephen Harper’s approach to taxing and spending resonates in official circles. Last month, for instance, they posted a detailed deconstruction of the Prime Minister’s claim that Old Age Security was “unsustainable.” Not according to Clark and DeVries. They pointed to the government’s own projections showing that restraint already imposed on big spending items like defence and health would allow OAS to go untouched without threatening federal finances. Cross has plans for his own online newsletter, to be called Inside the Numbers.

To have outsiders who were recently insiders picking apart their take on federal finances and economic trends is frequently annoying to cabinet ministers. When it comes to foreign and defence matters, the arguments often turn even more heated. On the Harper government’s policy shift on the Middle East toward unquestioning support of Israel, and a less sympathetic stance toward the Palestinians, two former UN ambassadors, Paul Heinbecker and Robert Fowler, emerged as high-profile critics. On the Tories’ plan to buy new fighter jets without putting the multi-billion-dollar deal up for competitive bids, the government’s most tenacious naysayer is Alan Williams, a former Department of National Defence assistant deputy minister who was once in charge of the fighter jet file.

Williams says he is non-partisan, motivated only by his astonishment that a normal procurement process wasn’t followed to ensure the best jet for the best price. He didn’t see much chance of the New Democrats or Liberals grasping the intricacies of military purchases well enough to keep the heat on the Tories. “The opposition is quite weak right now as it tries to get itself restructured, and there wasn’t a great deal of knowledge about what the reality was,” he says. It’s possible that once they elect new leaders, the opposition parties will regain their status as sources of the main alternatives to official policy. For now, though, the more cogent reactions to the government’s policy moves increasingly come from experts who not so long ago served it from within.


Canada’s unofficial (and unelected) opposition

  1. “For now, though, the more cogent reactions to the government’s policy moves increasingly come from experts who not so long ago served it from within”

    Slightly more of a challenge to the CPC war room as far as discediting them is concerned – it’ll take more than  Tony the fixer waving around a copy of some alleged liberal functionaries donation record, but really would you take the word of a formerly loyal servant of the crown who left to make a buck or two more or who simply couldn’t stand the fact that “he” wasn’t the man? When you’re commited to a strategy of mischaracterization, bullying and character assasination when necessary this is all too easy.
    Still, it’s about time the bureaucrats grew a pair and stepped up for the country – good for them.

    • An ex-bureaucrat is the same as any ex-official – out of the loop, and therefore badly informed an probably somewhat bitter and twisted.  Rely on their opinions if you like.

    • “…would you take the word of a formerly loyal servant of the crown who left to make a buck or two more or who simply couldn’t stand the fact that “he” wasn’t the man?”

      The main value to be derived from the likes of Devries, Clark et al as we read the insightful musings they craft while they wait for their next fat indexed pension cheque is they confirm the long-held suspicion that the ranks of the public service – especially at the top – tilt decidedly left.

      • I guess it could look that way to someone whose starting point is way off in right field. Personally i’d rather someone check their workings for bias, not just assume it.

        • I think it’s a pretty unassailable assumption.  I don’t recall a similar phenomenon developing during the Lieberal years.  A true fiscally conservative government (not that Harper necessarily has one) tends to rub the career manadarin/PSAC types the wrong way. 

          • Except the former mandarin is complaining that the governement is NOT being fiscally conservative… that it is, in fact, NOT getting the best jet for the best price.

            So leave your left/right quackery at the door. This is about WRONG and right.

          • Perhaps it’s just that I have a archaic view of how public servants – especially senior public servants – should conduct themselves, both within and outside of government.  Traditionally, there’s been a bright line that marks the point a public servant ceases to do his/her job of supporting his/her minister and becomes a political advocate.  The more professional public servant recognizes the line and understands that, if s/he wants to cross it, s/he can leave the public service and stand for election, at which point they can snipe at government to their hearts content.

            There are thousands of recommendations made every day by various bureaucrats for consideration by their political overseers.  Even the best of the public servants will have a high percentage of their recommendations rejected by said overseers, as often as not for purely political reasons.  It is highly unseemly to respond to this reality of bureaucratic life by pouting that the minister didn’t listen to you often enough from your very nicely padded retirement nest.

          • not like times a thousand!

          • Maybe it helps not to p off the bureaucrats from the get go, herding them in with all the other enimies of real conservatism…remember Mulroney!

            Unassailable assumption…sounds like something Brian would have said about his Meech plan.

    • All of you brain-washed conservatives need to take a cold shower and wake up. While I don’t necessarily disagree with raising raising the retirement age, all other Conservative policies are so backwards and short-sighted, it is scary. The only thing that is keeping Harper from completely destroying this country is his ego wanting him to get re-elected. From lowering the GST instead of lowering middle-class taxes, to his handling of the environment, to the puzzling and excessive contract for fighter jets…all are going to keep us in the red for decades to come, in one way or another. These billions wasted make the long-gun registry look like pennies comparatively speaking.

  2. I’ve got a retired uncle who was a teacher for 25+ years and he’s still pissed at Mike Harris.  Finding bureaucrats and public sector workers, even retired ones, who are opposed to conservative parties isn’t difficult and doesn’t prove anything.

    • There’s a big difference between some anonymous teacher and the people who worked their way to the top of federal departments.


  3. Good people, doing their job for Canada, even when they’re no longer on the job.

    Like they say, there’s the net, and blogging and tweeting to keep them in the loop.

    Thank you to all these people, on behalf of the country.

    • Are you saying that ex-bureaucrats are kept reliably up-to-date and in the loop via the internet?  Surely you must be joking.  

      • You ever actually read the articles you comment on?

  4. There is no “loop” with the CPC cabinet.  Or at least all the ministers are out of it if there is one.  Policy is determined by overweight twentysomethings in PMO.  It’s called modern Canadian democracy.

  5. What I find remarkable about this shift is that, increased communications enabled by technology notwithstanding, until recent years bureaucrats were able to provide anonymous, “fearless and unbiased advice” to the government executive. That was their job — to speak truth to power — and they did it well and always were loyal to whatever administration was in power — the politics didn’t matter. And when they retired … they retired. That was the way our democracy worked. Bureaucrats worked anonymously and the politicians took the credit and, where necessary, the blame. Now things have changed and public servants have become political fodder — named and shamed. The most recent example of this is the bureaucrat in Immigration who, in following orders, lined up public servants to pretend to be new Canadians but was subsequently named and shamed in the media. The minister’s office should have taken responsibility for that. So, it would appear that some bureaucrats are withdrawing in frustration from the public service and are retaliating perhaps. What’s sauce for the goose … a troubling trend, nonetheless.

  6. Kudos to them.  That is exactly what a good citizen in the bureaucracy should do when confronted with policies he thinks are wrong for the country.

    Resigning one’s post in order to oppose the government is a long and honourable tradition.  It’s the people who remain in their posts and undermine the government they’re supposed to be serving that bother me.

    • “Resigning one’s post in order to oppose the government is a long and honourable tradition.”

      In contrast, waiting until the pension cheques start to arrive before stabbing in the back the government you took an oath to loyally support throughout your career is a more recent and dishonourable tradition.

  7. The word bureaucrats conjures up the picture of East Germany right after the war.  The bureaucrats that were processing and stamping the Nazi documents that sent people to “the camps” managed to stay gainfully employed when the Russians took over. They Nazi bureaucrats, that became communist bureaucrats, simply changed documents and rubber stamps to send their fellow countrymen to the Gulag. 
    Bureaucrats don’t give the warm and fuzzies – no matter where they exist and, if one were to give me the time of day, I’d get a second opinion.

  8. If you think that the problem is government, and you happen to the run the government (like the GOP in the States), you simply lay off government employees in the name of fiscal responsibility. That’s what they have been doing in the US since Bill Clinton was President. Though a Democrat was sitting in the Oval Office, the Republicans ran both Houses of Congress under Clinton.

    The Harper government seems to think that it needs to silence the Opposition. That’s a problem, if you perceive the Opposition as being government employees. 

    Not a problem if you start downsizing.

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