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Monday, February 22, 2010

The Courtiers and the Court

Into the Ottawa Valley ride the 600:

In his report on the sponsorship scandal, Justice John Gomery singled out ministerial aides for scrutiny and said their roles should be clarified in a code and the jobs professionalized. Gomery's proposals were never implemented. In late 2008, there were more than 600 ministerial aides working for the Prime Minister's Office, ministers and secretaries of state.

"It's time to define the role of exempt staff and impose some prescription on what they do and how they do it," said Donald Savoie, the University of Moncton professor who headed Gomery's research team.

"Government has become too complex, especially with access to information. We need to get a handle on them so they aren't loose cannons flying around issuing orders without someone living with the consequences. It's not the public service's fault. I think they are the victims."

For once I pity the bureaucrats. Their grey eminences shaken by the veiled threats of twenty-something whiz kids, many armed with that most oxymoronic of qualifications, the political science degree. Politics is an art, and as it is often noted a fairly black one at that. Being clever with words can get you pretty far at a young age, if you're in the right place at the right time. Clever does not mean wise. There is a certain reverence for parliamentary tradition that is necessary for a free society to function, for politicians and their flacks to know their place as servants and not masters of a nation. 

A Conservative government should be concerned about an unsympathetic civil service, the Pearsonalities as Diefenbaker called them, that concern does not permit staffers to treat civil servants like disobedient children. The danger here, as the author notes, is that this regiment of political aides is utterly unaccountable. They are paid from the public purse, but are "exempt" from usual public service hiring and firing procedures, they serve essentially at the pleasure of their ministerial employer. They are expendable and allow the minister plausible deniability when the heat is on. Like Blackberry wielding covert agents. A Leviathan state is bad enough, one where power is wielded by this high-flyer on Monday, and some other on Wednesday, becomes intolerable. It is another step away from the principle of a government of laws and not men. The defenders of the Tory apparatchik class will point to necessity. How else can Tories govern, except by cowering the civil service? Well, perhaps by reducing it. The power of political aides, like those of courtiers of a different age, stems from the size of the state. The smaller the government, the more accountable the government.

Posted by Richard Anderson on February 22, 2010 | Permalink


You've described those annoying know-nothings well but aside from minimizing quality time available to attempt at ministerial enlightenment, they are usually the only actual obedient "servants" of the political class. The line ministries are generally designed to run with or without any sign of intelligent life available in the Ministerial role. That is also why most attempts at reform which go against the enshrined leadership of senior bureaucrats will suffer from subtle sabotage throughout the ministry.

At the federal level the solution is easier as many ministries could be effectively abolished (eg DFO, responsibilities could be downloaded to provincial counterparts). The problem is more pronounced at the provincial level where real nuts and bolts issues fall (health care, education, resources etc). Nothing that a hefty dose of privatization couldn't cure, but I digress.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2010-02-22 10:55:11 AM

How right you are, John. Having had first hand experience working in the "public service" I also witnessed how these senior bureaucrats can ignore direction from elected politicians and even sabotage them. Contrary to the myth, the public service is not politically neutral.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-02-22 12:17:58 PM

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