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.