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
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Department of Foreign Affairs staff who pack the lobby of foreign affairs headquarters in Ottawa on Friday, November 6, 2015. Trudeau spoke following a meeting with his cabinet. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
(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.

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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.’ ”