The public service has lost a crucial function

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Bill Morneau in House of Commons. Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

This column's topic, civil servants, may sound boring. But really it's about the surprising, almost entertaining incompetence of the Trudeau government.

Picture what they've muffed: the Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women; electoral reform; Bill Morneau's fairness-oriented tax bill. These weren't unpopular, they should've been doable. Yet the first keeps sinking; the second basically vanished; and tax reform limps along, wounded.

Year-end pundits' appraisals laid the blame on problems of "messaging" and communications. Trudeau's people seem to agree. Morneau said, "I've learned from this experience that we have to be very good at communicating to Canadians what it is that we're trying to achieve." I'd call that a delusion.

Why? Because they were already superb messengers before they won power. Trudeau was their message and they communicated him beautifully. When an early initiative, Syrian refugees, hit some bumps, they messaged Trudeau into Pearson airport to greet the arrivals, and smoothed it all out.

The problem is elsewhere, it's governing. That isn't so much a lost art; what's been lost is that there's an art to it at all. The bright-eyed party types, like Gerry Butts (Trudeau's minder) arrive in Ottawa with their candidates. But the civil servants were there all along. They're part of the furniture of government.

There's roughly a zillion things that can go wrong when governments try to change complex societies with new legislation or institutions. It's like opening up someone's chest or cranium; it's best to have advance knowledge and experience. Otherwise you'll probably make a mess. Surgeons can be obnoxious, but you wouldn't like to be operated on without one.

So, for instance, nothing was wrong with Morneau's bill (aside from not touching the megabandits at the top) but no one seemed able to think it through. That's always been the special skill of the loftiest civil servants, mainly deputy ministers.

It was once a prized rank (even assistant DMs were haughty). They gloried in being called mandarins, far above the mob. Ministers could state goals. But their job then was to do and say as their deputies directed, just like in Yes, Minister, and the smart ones (who may've been stupid, it didn't matter if they had good deputies) did so. DMs spent their careers absorbing the potential traps of governing. They were the ones who awoke at night fretting over what might happen. Every difficult project needs someone doing that.

 I'm not saying they were likable, they weren't. They were rivalrous, contemptuous and insufferably arrogant. They were a caste. The last notable wave included Bernie and Sylvia Ostry, who didn't bolt when others headed for the exits in the 1980s. They didn't get rich, as you could in business, but they had power and glory: the glory of serving your country, perhaps even your species! (If that sounds corny, think of Jonas Salk refusing to patent his cure for polio. Glory rules. Mere fame or celebrity is its wan successor.)

Now take my old camp counsellor, Mickey (Marshall) Cohen. He spent 15 years DMing around Ottawa, then leveraged his imposing resumé to move on to O&Y, Molson's and other pastures; like Derek Burney and myriad others. That was in the 1980s -- when government became, as Reagan said, the problem, with business as the solution. Nice to have a theory for going greedy. Public service transformed into merely the minor leagues before you moved up to The Show.

The result was that those overseeing the process kept getting younger and leaving earlier. Since messaging is easier than analyzing, manoeuvring, compromising and finishing, they fiddle with communication until it's time to move along. Every government in Canada has this problem. They try to make do with outside "strategists" but those are just party people waiting to return to power.

The practical problem is the wage gap. DMs make $221,000 to $326,000. As Jennifer Wells reported here, the minimum for Canada's top CEOs is now $5.2 million; the average, $10.4 million. That's 15 to 50 times more, and beyond. When DMs were earning half or even a quarter, they could talk themselves into staying. Now they'd feel like chumps -- encouraged to by our entire culture.

As I say, I won't miss them, though they were fun to talk to, with their cockiness and verbality. The question is what governments can do to replace their crucial function. I'm sure there's a solution, and I hope someone finds it.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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