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.