Paul Martin defined his government’s agenda when he denounced the “culture” of Ottawa, and announced everything would have to change. It was part of his early, failed attempt to dissipate the sponsorship scandal by becoming an accuser himself.

But, there is little doubt he wants the public sector to be overhauled, and Ottawa remade along the lines of private enterprise, perhaps becoming more like a steamship company.

This was confirmed when the new cabinet was announced. Martin had Ralph Goodale stay on as finance minister. The prime minister talked about the imperative of having a minister who had the confidence of capital markets. This was how he defined the job he himself had held for a decade; it was not about financing services for citizens, but about creating a climate for profit-taking.

Martin also decided that Reg Alcock would retain his post as Treasury Board president. Alcock was the man who began his job by freezing government hirings.

Despite continuous efforts since the Glassco commission of the 1960s to apply business methods to government, something of the public service ethos is still around Ottawa. The usual view is that governments employ lazy people to waste money, while business executives work hard to make money. In fact it is the well-disciplined public sector which practices frugality, while the excesses are in the corporate world.

When I joined the Department of Finance in July 1966, the deputy minister earned $29,500, which was less than six times what the lowest paid professional (that would be me) received. His Volkswagen was parked next to the front door of the Confederation Building on Wellington St., next to Parliament t Hill. Finance shared offices with Treasury Board, along with common administrative services. The deputy, as we called him, went to his home on Clemow St. for dinner, and came back to the office in the evening.

Staff vacation time that first summer allowed new recruits to take on some of the activities normally handled by others. My office mate had been instructed to prepare a letter for the deputy minister’s signature, a routine authorization sent to the International Monetary Fund.

The letter went up the line, and came back a few hours later. In red ink, a covering note signed by the deputy demanded to know what fool had decided the letter should go in an eight-and-a-half by 11-inch envelope, instead of a regular, letter sized envelope. “It is a waste of a good three-cent stamp” he wrote.

The deputy was Robert Bryce. He embodied Ottawa culture: devoted service, hard work, modest rewards. A former Secretary to the Treasury Board, he had been handed the job as Secretary to the Cabinet under John Diefenbaker. He had come back to Finance, where his career had begun, in the wake of the first Walter Gordon budget, which was surrounded in controversy.

When the CCF reign ended in Saskatchewan, Bryce recruited some of their leading public servants, including Al Johnston as Assistant Deputy Minister of Finance. That was the era when the Canada Pension Plan, medicare and the Canada Assistance Plan emerged with Finance playing a leading role.

Bryce, when a graduate student at Harvard, after studying at the University of Toronto and at Cambridge, was credited by John Kenneth Galbraith with bringing the ideas for full employment, through public finance, of legendary economist John Maynard Keynes to America. Bryce had studied under Keynes in Cambridge.

In the collected Keynes papers (edited by Donald Moggridge) there is a letter in response to a paper Bryce had read to a seminar at the London School of Economics. Keynes wrote that Bryce had understood his thought better than he had himself, and that reading the paper he now saw more clearly where his own work need to go.

In later years it was revealed that the RCMP security service had a file on a former deputy minister of finance. Bryce went on the local CBC radio morning show and suggested that it might have been him. After all, he had been a member of the socialist club at Cambridge. (It was probably Simon Reisman, who had been a Communist party member).

Along with the public service commission, Finance and Treasury Board have a major role in managing the public household. This does not mean mandating Minister Goodale to implement government by the bond market. Putting the public household into top shape requires creative public investment, financed by debt widely held by the public. This was how the war effort was made possible 65 years ago, and how postwar Canada was built.

The public household needs to inspire trust among those who work there. Minister Alcock made every mistake to be made in his first try at the job, unless of course his idea was to prepare public services for privatization, by shutting down hiring and refusing to negotiate in good faith.

Paul Martin is a businessman in politics. But the public household needs more imagination than the business milieu requires of its leaders, and Martin has failed to show he understands there is a difference.

Martin should either govern or resign. I suspect he will do neither. Rather he and his entourage will continue to plot, scheme, manipulate, prevaricate and dissimulate, all the while looking for an imaginary bottom line.What they should be doing is taking their inspiration from the very culture they are trying to suppress: the tradition of public service, in the common interest. Recruiting a new generation of outstanding young Canadians would be a good place to start.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...