In Doug Ford, Ontario has elected a Premier without a coherent governing agenda and with little knowledge of key government files. The Ford campaign, a tightly scripted production built around a series of populist slogans recited stiffly off a teleprompter, was just competent enough to keep a sure victory from slipping away. The fact that his nervous handlers were obsessed with keeping reporters at a safe distance from the PC leader, suggests that our new Premier is a man with a very shaky grasp of the issues.
During the 2018 campaign, Mr. Ford made countless false claims and misleading statements. It would be an understatement to say that Mr. Ford has little use for the facts. This strong bias against evidenced-based decision-making was clear when within days of being sworn in, the Ford government fired Ontario’s Chief Scientist, Molly Shoichet, an award-winning professor at the University of Toronto, and eliminated the Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science. And in government, the false claims from the PC campaign continue on many fronts from climate change to federal refugee policy.
Beyond his ignorance of key provincial files, Premier Ford can’t be relied upon to tend to the PC Party’s ongoing operational problems and incessant infighting. One only has to look at the events that brought down former PC leader Patrick Brown and the countless PC nomination meetings in which the results were contested amid accusations of membership recruiting and voting improprieties, to know that there is something seriously wrong with the culture of the Ontario PC party. It is also obvious that Doug Ford is exactly the wrong man to fix those problems.
It is the central argument of this article that a non-partisan, public service willing to speak truth to power is especially crucial with the ascendancy of right-wing, populist governments headed by men such as Mr. Ford and U. S. President Trump. This is because both men consistently display a troubling dis-regard for hard facts and institutional norms.
In other words, the existence of a fearless, professional public service – along with an independent judiciary and a free press – assumes greater importance given the erratic behaviour of such right wing, populist leaders.
In our Westminster style political system, all governments – whether of the left, centre or right – require a strong, non-partisan, public service willing to speak truth to the elected government of the day. As such, it is more than a little unsettling that astute Canadian observers of both the federal and provincial scenes have long worried about a decades long decline in the capacity and willingness of our professional public services to speak truth to power. These concerns recently spilled onto the front page of the Globe and Mail when Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick (Canada’s top public servant) challenged Auditor-General Michael Ferguson’s assertion that the problems with the federal government’s Phoenix pay system were rooted in “pervasive cultural problems” in the federal public service.
In a Globe op-ed on June 24th, Ralph Heintzman, a senior fellow of Massey College in the University of Toronto and a former head of the federal government’s Office of Public Service Values and Ethics, summed up the ongoing debate over problems in public service culture and, in particular, the important contribution to this debate of the Gomery Report of 2005. That report included several recommendations calling for accountability changes at the Deputy Minister level that would provide for a much more supportive environment for public servants speaking truth to power.
The changes proposed by Gomery would have allowed for a clearer distinction between what the elected government of the day is accountable for (policy) and what the public service is accountable for (administration and program implementation). The Gomery report argued convincingly that a clear distinction can and should be made between policy accountability and administrative accountability and that by making it clear that the public service is accountable for administrative failures and the political side for policy failures, the public service is actually in a much stronger position to speak truth to power. Not surprisingly, putting the mechanisms in place that would allow for a clear distinction between public service accountability and political accountability elicited strong opposition from both the federal public service and federal politicians. It is a sad fact of Canadian public life that both groups saw it as being in their interest to maintain the confusion over their respective areas of accountability.
Another key recommendation of Gomery was to take the power to appoint Deputy Ministers away from the political side and give it to a more neutral body. This would also strengthen the ability of the public service to speak truth to power. But as Heintzman points out, none of the key recommendations were implemented by the Harper government as recommended by Gomery – even though they have long been in place in the U.K. and have been enormously beneficial to the effective functioning of the U.K. Parliament. The results of this inaction are countless failures of program and policy implementation at both the federal and provincial levels for reasons similar to those that caused the failure of the Phoenix pay system.
There are those that continue to argue that changes such as those recommended by Gomery are not needed, that there is little to worry about, and that Canada’s professional public services are strong and more than capable of restraining a populist leader such as Mr. Ford. However, the sight of young children being torn from the arms of their parents along the Mexican – U.S. border should be a reminder to all Canadians not to take for granted a government rooted in a respect for human rights and the primacy of the rule of law.
Leaders such as President Trump and Premier Ford – men with little respect for facts and an impatience with institutional norms – require democratic institutional constraints. In the case of Premier Ford, the Ontario Public Service is likely the most important institution that could provide such constraints. However, there is a growing body of evidence (alluded to above and detailed below) that the senior ranks of Canada’s non-partisan, professional public services increasingly lack the will to speak truth to power. If that is in fact the case, Ontarians could be in for a very rough four years under Mr. Ford.