Why Conservatives think the public service is Liberal

Paul Wells on partisanship and civil servants


The Prime Minister’s comments in Question Period today to the effect that two former civil servants are “partisan” when, and to the extent that, they criticize his government, have occasioned a lot of close parsing by Colleague Wherry. And it’s true, I have no idea whether Scott Clark and Peter DeVries support the Liberal party. And there are uncomfortable echos of the whole Linda Keen affair in the notion that, to this PM, critics are by definition Liberal.

But neither did Stephen Harper pull the whole notion out of the air. Look:

OTTAWA—Another high-profile public servant has joined Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s inner circle.

Patrick Parisot has quit his post as ambassador to Algeria to become Ignatieff’s principal secretary.

Parisot, a former broadcaster who served as a valued adviser to former prime minister Jean Chrétien, is the fourth person to jump straight from the bureaucracy into Ignatieff’s inner sanctum.

The pattern is troubling to public administration experts who believe the line between professional, neutral public servants and partisan political staffers has become dangerously blurred.

Ignatieff has repeatedly chided Prime Minister Stephen Harper for treating bureaucrats and independent watchdogs like partisan enemies of the Conservative government.

Yet Ignatieff’s staffing choices have contributed to the Tories’ perception that the bureaucracy is full of closet and not-so-secret Liberals.

The Tories were irate when Kevin Chan, executive assistant to the country’s top civil servant, quit his post last year to join Ignatieff’s team. They fretted that Chan, who had been privy to secret discussions on the budget and other sensitive matters, would share his inside knowledge with the Liberals.

There was a lot of fretting today about Harper impugning the public service. Elly Alboim, the former CBC Ottawa bureau chief who was a key advisor to Paul Martin and remains a highly respected figure in Ottawa, tweeted that “the PM has an overriding responsibility to maintain respect for the integrity of the senior public service.” Well, sure, but if that began today it’d be a bit late, no? Kevin Chan would have briefed Harper in person before calling Ignatieff up to ask for work. He follows in a long line of public-service Liberals, including Michel Dupuy, who ran for the party three years after finishing a career in the bureaucracy that saw him serve as Pierre Trudeau’s ambassador to Paris, and Marcel Massé, who as Clerk of the Privy Council advised Prime Minister Joe Clark during the parliamentary confidence vote of December 1979 and then ran for the Chrétien Liberals in 1993. There are more examples. I’ll stop there.

On Scott Clark and Pete DeVries, I have no information. Conservatives would say that if something walks and talks like a duck, they get to call it a duck.



Why Conservatives think the public service is Liberal

  1. Perhaps the Prime Minister should address the issue, rather than making ad hominem attacks on two of Canada’s most respected former civil servants.

    • Funny how they only become “most respected” when they start with the partisan talking points.

      • If you disagree with the “most respected” reference, perhaps you could explain why, rather than snarking at the commentor.

  2. If Clark and DeVries are merely being partisan, it should be easy to demonstrate that by countering what they have said. That Harper has been at war with the civil service since day one, doesn’t help him at this point.

  3. “Conservatives would say that if something walks and talks like a duck, they get to call it a duck.”

    I have heard PM Harper quacking an awful lot over the past few years. I don’t know why Cons would care if public service is Liberal, it is rather convenient actually, because Cons morphed into Liberals a few years ago at least. Takes one to know one and all that.

    Narcissism of small differences has taken hold of Harper, PM is more focused on party labels than he is on policies.

  4. It should come as no surprise to clear-thinking individuals when former civil servants scurry over to the Liberal camp at the first opportunity. They have received excellent and secure salaries, benefits, and pensions for a job that basically entails the spending of the tax dollars of hard working Canadians with very little comprehension of what it takes to survive out in the real world.
    That would make them quite at home in a Party that would choose a Silver Spooner like Justin Trudeau as a leader.
    I hope my effort at getting to the truth does not appear to be too partisan to you more sensitive souls.

    As for Colleague Wherry—-even Mr. Wells cannot be too surprised when he sees such a blatantly partisan liberal make excuses for old Liberals.

    • Do you know these things to be factual? Or are you just another run of the mill CPC apologist?

      • Please tell us what ” things ” I said that you might think is not factual.

        • “It should come as no surprise to clear-thinking individuals when former
          civil servants scurry over to the Liberal camp at the first opportunity.
          They have received excellent and secure salaries, benefits, and
          pensions for a job that basically entails the spending of the tax
          dollars of hard working Canadians with very little comprehension of what
          it takes to survive out in the real world.
          That would make them quite at home in a Party that would choose a Silver Spooner like Justin Trudeau as a leader.
          I hope my effort at getting to the truth does not appear to be too partisan to you more sensitive souls.

          As for Colleague Wherry—-even Mr. Wells cannot be too surprised
          when he sees such a blatantly partisan liberal make excuses for old

          • So sorry about the malady that has so obviously made it unable for you to comprehend facts.

          • Someone used the thesaurus!

          • Aw c’mon . . . “I hope my effort at getting to the truth does not appear to be too partisan to you more sensitive souls.” is probably factual.
            Or maybe not, hard to tell if he’s sincere.

  5. Civil servants tend to the belief that government is a force for good — not a surprise that they tend to agree with a party that has similar views rather than one which sees government as a drag on prosperity.

    • So it’s okay in your view for civil servants to be partisans, as long as they’re Liberal partisans?

      • Yeah, that’s exactly what he said. Yeesh!!!

      • Strawman fallacy!

  6. So because 6 or 7 of the more than 300,000 civil service employees have worked for the Liberals, the Conservatives are allowed to get away with blaming any criticism of them on partisanship and get to go around saying the civil service is Liberal?

    That to me seems like a stretch.

    • But since Wallin, Duffy & Kent all turned out to be closet Tories, doesn’t it make sense that a Conservative like Wells would come to Harper’s defense?

      • So much for the “leftist media” meme…just waiting for the Cons to now argue that they shot themselves in the foot by recruiting every right-leaning reporter in the country to bolster the Senate &/or Cabinet.

    • Given senior members of the Civil Service have started to act like the unofficial opposition, I would say yes. We have a party for that. They are called the NDP.

      • Yes. When senior members of the civil service publicly state that the government is doing crazy things, one explanation is that they are partisan hacks.

        Another explanation is that the government is doing crazy things.

  7. Former senior public servants are more likely liberal because highly educated people are more likely to vote liberal as per every published poll/study. No doubt that these people are way more educated than the average Canadian. So, it is only a question of probability and statistics that more of them will be liberal.

    BTW Harper and Flaherty should reread the CD Howe’s study that they used in their defence because the criticisms in that paper are very similar to those of DeVries and Clark. I am very familiar with this subject area and I totally support DeVries’ and Clark’s conclusions. A few of their words were a bit “inflammatory” but they called a spade a spade. As usual, Harper and Flaherty had no facts to refute any of the criticisms so they attacked the messengers.

    • Yeah, keep up with that schtick about only ” highly-educated ” people should vote Liberal while the “average Canadian” can vote Conservative.
      You should see the Liberal seat total continue from 160 to 120 to 70 to 40 and soon down to 15.

      • You do realize he didn’t actually say that, right? And how showing signs of poor reading comprehension actually supports this thesis?

        • LOL! Love that one!

      • I did not say they should vote liberal. I just said that any statistics on level of education and voting preference shows that the higher the level of education, the more likely one is to vote liberal (as opposed to conservative). That does not mean that every highly educated person votes liberal; it simply means that if you only had someone’s level of education and you were asked to guess what party this person voted for, the probability of you being right would be higher if you said the person voted liberal (or more generally did not vote conservative). This is not a value judgement, it is simply an evidence-based comment. I defy you to find statistics to show that conservative voters have a higher level of education than liberal voters.

        • I suppose the problem is not so much that Liberals quote random stats, but that they really believe that the few folks out there still voting Liberal are somehow more enlightened. more equal than the average Canadian.

          That attitude will bite you on the a$$ every time.

          • Congatulations! That comment was even dumber than your first try.

          • OK, enlightened one, (sarc) maybe you can explain why the once great Liberal Party is now huddled in the far corner of the HOC.

          • If you really want to know, you could do worse than reading Peter C Newman’s book. It’s an ugly story for liberals. But it isn’t as simple as saying liberals are just elitist snobs. Which is where you’re at.

        • Your argument has a flaw – statistics says that highly educated people vote Liberal. What was the last vote percentage of the Liberals – 18.9%. Those highly educated people are getting dumber every year. In ten years they’ve gone from 40% to 18.9%. Can you uneducate yourself?

          • No, the flaw is in your logic.

            The statement, “People with higher educations vote liberal” says absolutely nothing about what people with lesser educations do.

            Perhaps if you had more education you’d understand this.

          • What Thwim said.

            Also, you’re confusing liberal for Liberal. Only the capitalized word refers to the Liberal Party. Same goes for conservative/Conservative. You know, for future reference.

        • Your analysis is flawed. Highly educated young people tend towards modern liberalism as they’ve been inculcated with it for the duration of their time in schools, colleges, and universities. As they age, they will tend towards conservatism simply because their daily lives (unless they work in government or fail to earn their own way in life) will gradually teach them that government can only take from them. Margaret Thatcher once said, the facts of life are conservative, and as Will Rogers so wisely pointed out, every man’s life, liberty, and property are in peril, when the legislature is in session.

          • Thatcher also said there’s no society…Thatcher said a lot of things.
            And a natural tendency toward conservatism as one ages does not automatically equate to Conservatism; neither does it equate to your absurd notion that ” govt can only take from them.”

          • At this point, what you are saying is only a theory, possibly even wishful thinking. Where is the data that support your statement? May be you will be right in 30 years or so but I am dealing with today’s statistics and today’s facts. Unless you can come up with data that show the opposite of what I am saying, you cannot say that my analysis is flawed.

    • How about senior public servants are more likely Liberal because they are party members who joined in order to take advantage of the forty years the Liberals were in power.

      • Except there’s some significant research that supports Keeper’s point, and nothing significant that supports yours except for a perpetual victimhood complex.

      • Uh…not sure if you’ve heard of something called the Public Services Commission, but it was created a long time ago to prevent pols from hiring their buddies and it runs competitions for government jobs based on rules, merit, etc. So, you may want to keep your conspiracy theories to yourself.

        Most bureaucrats I know are not too impressed with any of the political parties recently. In general, the Liberals are less ideological and therefore more evidence-based, so it shouldn’t be too surprising if bureaucrats were to run for them. On the other hand, there are very, very few examples, which is why he has to go back to Pearson.

  8. While individuals in any area of the country can be partisan, a group of 300 000 people is bound to be a mix of different types roughly representing the breakdown of the broader population dependent on the demographics of that group.

    So the idea that “the public service” is entirely anything is of course ridiculous. You can perhaps make the case for individuals, but even here the proponderance of evidence suggests otherwise.

    After nearly seven years it has become apparent that the Conservative party cries “partisan” in nearly every case where someone disagrees with them. Essentially, they are completely unable to have a difference of opinion with anyone without going to mattresses.

    I’m not sure therefore why anyone would take such charges seriously anymore, unless they simply accept things without question.

    • You obviously don’t work in government. After forty years of Liberal control the civil service is filled with Liberal bag men and their families. The whole idea of joining a party is to get patronage appointments for yourself and your immediate family.

      • That you think that is the whole idea behind joining a party explains quite a bit about the CPC.

        • They learned from the best.

          I swear, who’d have ever imagined that while Stephen Harper was complaining about the Chretien and Martin Liberal governments he was taking such good notes?!?!?!

    • Oh those Conservatives and their grating partisan cheese.

  9. The “Corvette Theory” applies here. You can be a Mustang guy, or a Mopar guy, and still have a perfectly good job in any number of engineering disciplines at GM. You can be a software engineer, or work in powertrain development, or design tooling, etc., and have very good prospects for advancement. Your hobby will not affect your career. But… If you wanted to be part of the powertrain team, or the chassis engineering team at Team Corvette, you won’t likely get the job if you have a stable of Cobra-Jet Mustangs or are an aficionado of Hemi Chargers. Early Pontiac Trans-Ams? Maybe, unless the other candidate is the owner of an LS6 Chevelle. You want to be a part of the Corvette development process, you have to eat, sleep, and crap Chevrolet.

    That applies to the public sector as well. You might find all sorts of political ideologies lower down the totem pole in the public sector, although it’s unlikely that many conservatives will seek careers in government. But, the further up the food chain you go, the tendency towards big government progressivism will prevail. It’s real simple. No one ever got to be the head of a department on the belief that their entire agency is useless beyond words and should be abolished. Those who firmly believe in limited government and strict limits on the size and scope of government simply do not exist within government. Ergo, beyond a certain point, the likelihood that senior bureaucrats might be anything other than Liberals or New Democrats is exceedingly unlikely.

    • Would’ja look at that et al/Ergo go! You’re tho thofithticated!

      I was so impressed, I bought the company!

      Annnnnnd…….You’re fired.

      Sorry old chap, it’s simply a capitalist decision. Anyone who spends as much time as you dissecting and disseminating their own discourse can’t possibly have much left for productive, relevant enterprise.

      To paraphrase another, infinitely more talented, William:

      A: O Chromeo, Chromeo! wherefore art thou Chromeo?

      B: Errrr……I’m downtown, in the heart of federal liberalism, filing my EI claim (hangs glistening head in despair).

      Encryption Keys:

      A is for me

      B is for Bill……….and Bald……….and Bushy Brows………and Between jobs………

  10. No shortage of Leftist Mental Disorder on this thread.

    • And at least one Con who fancies himself a pseudo-shrink.

      • Very descriptive handle you have.

        • Thank you. Very nice of you to say so.

  11. Anyone and I mean anyone who actuallly worked with senior peoplewith the Fed’s knows full well that the Liberal Party is nestled up tighly with many of the senior people in fact it is how a lot of business gets done – people have to rememebr that the ol boy and soemtimes girl club has is and will be around for a long time and the LPT is a master of the art – there is never anythong overt it is a wink here and nudge there sort of thing – then when any other party wins and the ol boys and girls decide soemthing they don’t like – a leak here and there a report spun completely out of context here and there and my favorite a planning document conveniently emailed to soemone – high level bureaucrats are masters of this art !! and if anyone doubts what I say then they haven’t worked in the area I have seen and heard things that make you walk away shake your head and wonder how our system has been around long as it has!

  12. Interesting how Harper’s completely unsubstantiated allegation of partisanship has deflected discussion away from any actual examination of Clark and DeVries’ thesis.

  13. I have a slightly different take on this. I don’t see any reason why talented civil servants shouldn’t eventually find their way into national politics or business, after a reasonable respite – regardless of the political team. All within reason of course. Chan switching to MI’s team was a bit too much even for me.
    Have reasonable guidelines of course. But i remember someone [ can’t remember who it was] making a big fuss over Harpers tightening up of the rules for when ex pols and civil servants might reasonably step into jobs that permitted them to lobby the federal govt. Seems like the ethical thing to do [ what is it 5 years out now?] but according the critic [that i’ve forgotten] this has resulted in a dearth of talent willing to enter the civil service. IOWs having a boy scout attitude is equally as counterproductive as allowing the lines to totally blur.

    Can’t say i’m surprised by Harper’s comments though. The man would gnaw on his grandmothers arm if he thought it would give him an edge in a political dispute or debate.

  14. Don’t Bricker and Ibbitson have a new book out explaining this, except they use a different L word so as not to offend the L people?

    But everyone knows the Bricker and Ibbotson code, and what the L really means, even though they write in code.

  15. The first rule of L club.

    1. Don’t talk about L club.

  16. Of course the civil service skews liberal, particularly at the senior levels – the bilingualism requirement ensures that most of the posts will go to Quebecers (high rollers from Montreal like Alboim) who culturally skew leftward and may or may not have connections with the Big-L Liberal party that is traditionally based there.

    If the Laurentian consensus is indeed dead (I think it is), then the Official Languages Act is its zombie corpse, determined eat the brains of any upstarts from the West (or the 905) who get anywhere near Ottawa.

    Rather than take on Quebec over the OLA (which has to happen, if we are ever to have a representative civil service in this new day and age), Harper seems to prefer just ignoring the civil service altogether. It’s a short-term solution at best.