Dave Whitson recently retired after teaching Canadian Politics and Canadian Studies at the University of Alberta for many years. Over decades of talking with students, he came to understand that the career aspirations of intelligent young Canadians were telling indicators of important changes in our society.
Michael Harris begins his recent book on Stephen Harper, Party of One, with an anecdote from the Conservative victory party in 2011, when Stephen Harper finally won a majority mandate. An unnamed “senior Conservative” is quoted as offering the following comment on what was a surprisingly muted celebration: “This is still a Liberal country, and a Liberal public service, and we have to get everything done in one term.”
The time of that term has now almost expired, and several commentators have attributed to Stephen Harper a strategic political agenda in which Canada is remade into a more conservative country, one in which the Conservatives have displaced the Liberals as Canada’s ‘natural governing party.’
It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss all the ways in which the Harper government has sought to reshape Canadian politics to favour Conservatives in the future. Other contributions to this forum will surely focus on the hardball tactics that Harper has adapted from his U.S. Republican allies: among these, changes to the rules governing political fundraising that work to the Conservatives’ advantage; and the use of their large fundraising advantage to air ‘attack ads’ long before election campaigns are underway.
Others may examine Stephen Harper’s ongoing war with Canada’s judiciary, and with the Supreme Court in particular, on issues including crime and punishment, First Nations’ rights, and eligibility to sit on the Court itself. And for what it’s worth, I hope that someone will take on the major shifts that the Harper government has made in Canadian immigration policy: shifts that have favoured entrepreneurial and (some) professional migrants, while diminishing the rights of refugees and of temporary foreign workers; as well as shifts that alter the makeup of Canada’s immigrant communities.
What I want to focus on for the balance of this paper, though, are some of the impacts that the Harper Conservatives have had on Canada’s public service. From its earliest days, it has been one of the guiding principles of Canada’s federal bureaucracy that appointments are made on the basis of qualifications and professional competency, as opposed to political allegiance or ideology. It was this that resulted, over time, in a public service with a collective expertise and policy capacity that in many fields was globally respected.
Nonetheless, after a steady expansion in the size and scope of government during the postwar decades, many Conservatives came to believe that senior civil servants had been Liberal sympathizers or allies. Moreover, there is a ‘common sense’ shared among conservatives and some business people that civil servants are less hardworking – or at least less ‘productive’, in economic terms – than those who work in the private sector. And when times become difficult, as they did in the 1980s and have again in the recessions of more recent decades, there are always voices on the Right of the political spectrum who fan popular resentment of public servants, and call for smaller government.
Not all of this is Stephen Harper’s doing, of course. Indeed, in the years between 1980 -2000, when federal deficits in Canada proved difficult to reduce, both the Mulroney and Chretien governments undertook major reviews of government programs and operations. These led to the termination of some federal programs, to the privatization of some service functions, and to the delivery of other services in partnership with provinces or with nonprofit agencies (e.g. Navcan). This ‘streamlining’ of government had already trimmed more than 50,000 jobs from Canada’s public service by the turn of the century, so that there was little ‘fat’ left to cut when the Harper Conservatives came to power.
Nonetheless, we can see in the cuts made by the Harper government over the last decade a determined agenda to reduce the size and cost of government in Canada, even when this has demonstrably harmful impacts on services that our governments used to provide. And although the cuts that most directly impact individuals and families, notably those to education and health care, are in services delivered by provinces, there are important federal services whose gutting or reorientation is making Canada a poorer and dirtier place.
The most far-reaching of these are cuts to services involving research and information capacities or a regulatory function, and we can see the effects of this in departments like Fisheries & Oceans, Environment, Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Health. Fisheries & Oceans and Environment have suffered particularly deep cuts, and these have hit hardest at research scientists, and at field staff whose duties involved inspection and enforcement.
The agenda here, it appears, is that these Departments (as well as public agencies like the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) are being re-purposed so that their main job is no longer scientific research or public protection. It is rather to help Canadian corporations win business overseas. Research that might derail this commercial agenda– whether on climate change, on fish stocks, or on agrifoods – is now unwelcome, and research staff in all these Departments have been cut severely, while those who remain are prohibited from disseminating findings that might complicate the government’s objectives.
What this represents – and it is part of a pattern that includes the cancellation of the long-form census, freezes on funding to national research councils, and the closure of research facilities and libraries – is the Harper government’s hostility towards any scholarship that challenges articles of Conservative belief: whether this is on climate change, on poverty and inequality, or on crime and punishment. This can be seen not just with respect to the natural environment, moreover, but in areas of social policy too.
In respect to social scholarship, the most damaging initiatives have been the termination of the census, and massive cuts to Statistics Canada. Together, these have resulted in a serious erosion in our capacity to track and understand the demographic and social trends that are reshaping our country. The work of Statistics Canada, along with social science research in the universities, has allowed us to document the growth of poverty and inequality in Canada, and to see links between income levels and other social outcomes: health and educational outcomes, for example, as well as employment and crime data.
As former Tory pollster Allan Gregg has observed, effective policy solutions can only be developed on the basis of an accurate understanding of the facts. However, Gregg argues that the Harper government has shown a resolute disregard for facts, whenever the evidence points to different solutions than those prescribed by Conservative belief (e.g., on crime and punishment). “Policy, for them, should be based on conviction, and not bloodless statistics,” and their convictions on this score are sharpened by a belief that the social sciences (especially sociology and criminology) have built-in liberal biases.
This hostility to the scientific and social science communities – a hostility manifest in public comments by Harper and some of his senior ministers (e.g., Joe Oliver), in high-profile dismissals of senior public servants unwilling to ‘toe the government line’, and the more systemic cutbacks to public service staff that we have cited above - have led to important reductions in Canada’s capacity to develop evidence-based policy. It has also led to a significant loss of morale in Canada’s public service.
Acadian writer Clive Doucet described his father’s journey, from a peasant farm in Cape Breton to graduate work in economics followed by a successful career in Canada’s public service, during the postwar decades. For the elder Doucet, public service was a calling, and he saw his duty as offering the best professional advice he could to the government of the day, regardless of its politics. He was not a partisan Liberal, according to his son; indeed he would not discuss politics with family or friends. However, he firmly believed that he and his colleagues were working to build a better country.
His son considers that members of his father’s generation were historically fortunate that their professional careers were forged in a time when such idealism about the capacities of government was fairly widely shared. Today, this view is anathema to Stephen Harper, as well as to others on the Right, in Canada and in other English- speaking countries (Tea Party Republicans, for example). Now, anyone aspiring to work in government needs to know that at least some of their potential political masters, and some of the public too, harbour an antipathy for government and want reductions in its size.
The idealism that Doucet associates with‘public service’ can still be found, of course, and there are still many bright and principled individuals who offer their best professional advice to their managers and their political Ministers. However, when their work is as clearly unwelcome as it has become during the Harper regime, and when ideology regularly trumps what research results would suggest is good public policy, it is not surprising that professional staff can become discouraged. This is reinforced, moreover, when Conservative politicians and think tanks call for yet more layoffs, and court political popularity by attacking public sector salaries and pensions.
If we can agree that the quality of Canada’s public service is something that matters to the future of the country, and if we want public service to be an attractive career choice for the next generations of graduates, it is important that Harper’s attack on the public service be actively challenged, and that future governments will invest in rebuilding it.