What happens when civil servants get partisan

Non-partisanship is a principle of Canada’s public service. So when Ottawa civil servants cheered Trudeau’s arrival, they violated a basic principle of government

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed up last Friday at the Lester B. Pearson building, home of Canada’s newly renamed Department of Global Affairs, he was treated to the kind of reception from employees there that Taylor Swift might have received, had she visited a local high school.

Civil servants cheered and crowded him for selfies. One woman complimented him on his clothes. “Dressed-down Friday—I love it,” she said (Trudeau was wearing jeans and no tie), before joining her colleagues applauding him.

Other ministers received a similar, if more subdued, welcome. Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan was hugged. When a reporter asked Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion a mildly critical question, surrounding civil servants groaned.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s relationship with the civil service was not always smooth. One Global Affairs employee told Maclean’s she hoped Trudeau’s visit might herald “an era of more open communication, and mostly respect.”

But the demonstrative adulation also worries some who feel Global Affairs employees failed to uphold their professional obligation to appear non-partisan. “I was taken aback by that event,” says Donald Savoie, a professor and expert on Canada’s public service at Université de Moncton. “I don’t think it was appropriate. If you’re non-partisan, then you don’t exhibit that kind of show. You don’t appear non-partisan by hissing at journalists for asking tough questions, or applauding, getting a bit giddy.”

Non-partisanship is one of the principles of Canada’s public service. The Public Service Employment Act recognizes the right of employees to take part in political activities “while maintaining the principle of political impartiality.” Public servants who hold Governor in Council appointments (such as the heads of federal agencies and Crown corporations) received an email at the beginning of the just-completed election campaign, reminding them of their duty to appear non-partisan.

Related: A word of advice for Canada’s newly un-muzzled federal scientists

Guidelines are subject to some interpretation. Public servants can attend all-candidates meetings, for example, but when Environment Canada scientist Tony Turner recorded and posted on YouTube an anti-Harper protest song earlier this year, he was suspended (with pay). “The general principle I would apply is, when you come face-to-face with the other party when they come into power, are you able to defend what you did? Can you explain what you did, and without being cagey about it?” says Philippe Lagassé, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa.

According to Savoie, non-partisanship is “fundamental” to the way Canada’s public service works. “A new government that comes in has maximum energy and minimum knowledge. It’s important to have a public service that can speak to them without fear or favour,” and offer advice that is not shaped by political considerations, he says.

This sets Canada and other Westminster-style democracies apart from the United States, where much of the top tier of the civil service changes with every president, in an explicit acknowledgment that those individuals are not politically neutral.

Lagassé says Canada’s system—in addition to providing politicians with access to impartial, expert advice—ensures that the government will continue to function, regardless of whether Parliament is sitting, or if there is an election campaign in progress.

There are also constitutional elements involved. Civil servants are “recognized by the Supreme Court as being employees of the Crown, of Her Majesty,” says Lagassé, “and, therefore, their independence ultimately flows from the fact that they are employees of and serve the Queen, as the formal executive, and not directly the government of the day, being the political executive,” says Lagassé.

That public servants serve the Queen rather than the Prime Minister may strike some as archaic and ridiculous, allows Lagassé, adding: “If you think that, then you don’t really understand what the underpinnings of it are, and it creates a disconnection in our understanding of what the public service is supposed to be doing.”

So how serious a breach was Friday’s lovefest? Savoie, who describes it as inappropriate, says it was also understandable. Civil servants likely felt “there was a great opening of windows and doors” with the election of a new government, he says. “They felt a certain degree of, ‘Let’s celebrate.’ ”

Still, Savoie hopes the display is not repeated. “I think there are some role models left in the public service who will say, ‘Hey guys and gals, let’s not do this again.’ ”


What happens when civil servants get partisan

  1. Harper spent nine years himself violating the principle of a neutral bureaucracy. He muzzled and bullied the public service, people who work for all of Canada, NOT for the Conservative Party.
    These people spent years in the Reforma-Con wilderness, being constantly attacked.
    So relax a bit. Yes, it might be much for some people to see, but it’s like they just came out of the water to breathe !

    • How true. When you are not even allowed to share your work with other scientists, this was a breath of fresh air.

    • Your weak attempt to continue faulting our previous legitimate government simply confirms the partisan nature at Global Affairs.

      It was Global Affairs which resisted following government directives and illegally leaked private documents during the election too.

  2. “Civil servants are “recognized by the Supreme Court as being employees of the Crown, of Her Majesty,” says Lagassé, “and, therefore, their independence ultimately flows from the fact that they are employees of and serve the Queen, as the formal executive, and not directly the government of the day, being the political executive,” says Lagassé.”

    Didn’t they follow up their adolescent fawning over their idol by pulling their real boss’s portrait off the wall? Hope they enjoy their last four years of public sector employment.

    • You’ve said two rather things here: 1) that portrait was only up for the last 4 years, the paintings were put back in their previous place– in the spot that they’d occupied since the Queen herself opened the building in 1973. 2) You seem to assume that if the Conservatives were to win the next election (a huge if in itself), that a new Conservative govt would fire the entire civil service. Ain’t gonna happen– but the fact that Conservatives seem to like this idea is explanation for the way the entire civil has reacted to their new, respectful bosses.

      • We might have to get our Supreme Court to remind our civil service of whom their loyally must legally go to: our Queen and the Canadian public.

    • Yeeep, them jobs be reeeel nice for some fellers I know *HEEYAA HEEYAA HEYAAA*

      • Glad you showed up to delight us all with your pith – was hoping to hear from the mollusk’s mouth, so to speak, what will be the impact of Justin’s turd dump on east coast marine wildlife.

        • Don’t be so modest – the pith was all yours.

  3. Unfortunately, in 2011 the Federal Government for communication purposes was re-branded as the “Harper Government”. The non-partisan nature of the civil service was seriously compromised, in this and many other ways. It is natural for civil servants to react the way they have. In any case, good morale in the Civil Service surely depends on trust in, and respect for, the political leadership.

    • Our partisan civil servants at Global Affairs also booed a female reporter asking a question.

      Foreign Affairs civil servants have taken a deserved reputational hit.

  4. Trudeau will be attending his first real test next week at the G20. Time to pay the piper Justin. Remember what you said you where going to say to Putin. Looking forward to Putin KICKING YOUR A#S all over Turkey.

  5. The point of the Civil War was to finalize the constitutional principle of Parliamentary supremacy. The Crown levies taxes by the consent of Parliament. This means that Parliament can and must control the activity of government through its consent or non-consent. This is commonly known as ‘the power of the purse’.

    These people are attempting to overthrow 3 and a half centuries of constitutionalism.

  6. Nice to see that the bitter supporters of our previous government are still incapable of polite debate.

    Civil Servants are the servants of the people of Canada, as represented by the parliament and government of Canada. When our previous government deigned to call itself the Harper government (read Conservative government) instead of the Canadian government, civil servants were placed in the untenable position of trying to serve two masters – the people of Canada and the Conservative party.

    The Conservative party governed like so many other dictatorial governments in world history – secretive, anti-democratic, isolated, arbitrary and doctrinaire. It is not surprising, therefore, that civil servants, along with about two-thirds of the Canadian electorate, were glad to see them out of power. They would have muzzled the press, just like the civil servants, if they could have gotten away with it.

  7. This writer does not seem to know the first thing about the political partisanship sections of the PS Employment Act. It focuses on political activities during elections and the requirements of pubic servants running for office (i.e. seeking permission). The case law (e.g. Brewer) is extremely clear on this. Public servants outside of elections should conduct themselves in a non partisan manner meaning avoiding any public identification with a political party. In this case (notwithstanding the position of the Queen), Trudeau is the new boss and they were cheering him. That’s not partisanship within the meaning of the statute.

    • John- You’re missing the underlying point. As in our republican neighbor, we are a nation of government of the people, by the people, for the people. Trudeau is first and foremost a statist. In his world view, the citizenry exists in part to serve the wishes of the state. The cheering of the public service is in effect cheering for a government that they believe will be more coercive in its efforts to extract money from the citizenry and distribute it among those who have chosen careers in that very state.
      While somewhat of an over-simplification, it’s an accurate one. Unfortunately, it does not bode well for those who, like me, feel that the state is already bloated and greedy. It also lends truth to the fear and perception that the public service has become a bastion of leftism dedicated to eroding the economic and political freedoms that we cherish.
      What it boils down to is a lesson for the next conservative government: Cut hard, cut fast, and cut deep. Don’t apologize, and don’t look back.

      • “While somewhat of an over-simplification, ..”

        If only even that were true.

    • John,

      Good for you in drawing the narrowest possible definition of partisanship.

      Even by that definition the civil servants in question crossed the line. Groaning at a reporters question? One person actually trying to shout down a reporters question?

      I’m guessing you found this offensive when ordinary citizens did this at party rallies for a party you didn’t favour.

      People being paid with my tax dollars to do so is unforgivable.

  8. Harper treated the public service with suspicion from the time he was first elected; and with good reason. It is well known that the beaurocracy always seeks to increase its power, influence, and reach. Harper did a good job in limiting this, and the Public servants didn’t like it. Same goes for the courts, and the media. All have been hostile to Conservatives for quite some time; and a healthy dose of suspicion goes a long way.

    the public service has never been neutral. Most were hired under Liberal Governments, and many were fired under Conservative governments. The hostility was to be expected.

    Same for the “muzzled” scientists. The goal was NOT to silence real scientists. The goal was to prevent activists with doctorates to make outrageous and incorrect claims that the sky was falling, and it could all be due to man made global warming.

    Sadly, the new minister of science, ms Kirsty DUncan, has a long history of being a kook, a flake, and a generally disrespected nut-case who believes what she believes DESPITE the science, not because of it.

    • I knew there was a reason I like Nova Scotia!!

    • The goal was to prevent activists with doctorates to make outrageous and incorrect claims that the sky was falling, and it could all be due to man made global warming.

      Sure it was, jameshalifax, that’s why it’s was only climate scientists and scientists dealing with climate change who were muzzled.
      Do you even believe your own BS?

  9. After reading most of the comments, i think there are still a lot of resentful and mean spirited people who choose to rant on public forums.

    • Maybe, but some of us have the guts to post under our actual names. Invariably, the low information voters are the ones posting anonymously.

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