CANADA

Ask now for whom the bell tols...

Ian Urquhart June 4 1979
CANADA

Ask now for whom the bell tols...

Ian Urquhart June 4 1979

Ask now for whom the bell tols...

VICTORY

The day after the election, senior civil servants in Ottawa woke up with a hangover—if not literally, at least figuratively. Most of them had stayed up half the night, nervously drinking and watching the election results on television. And most of them had voted Liberal while the rest of the country (outside Quebec) went Conservative. The bureaucrats were voting, at least in part, against the Conservative proposal to eliminate 60,000 civil service jobs through attrition. While they had the satisfaction of bringing down two Tory stars in Ottawa ridings—economist Bob de Cotret and businesswoman Jean Pigott—they may have committed suicide in the process. For now the civil servants will have to do without two strong voices who would have protected them in a Tory cabinet bent on cutbacks. Indeed, at his press conference last week Prime Minister-elect Joe Clark underlined his determination to go ahead with the civil service cutbacks, in sharp contrast to the election-campaign waffling on the issue by de Cotret, Pigott and other Ottawa-area Conservative candidates.

It is likely, however, that the Conservatives will find it just as difficult to cut back the civil service as did the Liberals. In August, 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced that 25,000 civil service jobs would be eliminated through attrition and layoffs. By the end of last year, there were about 425,000 federal civil servants (excluding 14,500 Christmas helpers in the post office), up about 80,000 from the day Trudeau made his announcement. That total includes 79,000 members of the armed forces, which the Conservatives have promised to expand, and 21,000 Mounties, along with 6,000 prison guards, whom the Conservatives have pledged to retain, leaving about 319,000 civil servants. Eliminating 60,000 of them—19 per cent—is probably not possible without drastic curtailment of public services, something the Tories are unlikely to countenance. In Manitoba, for example, the provincial Conservative government has cut back its civil service by 13 per cent and, a senior federal Tory admits, the move cost dearly. NDP and Liberal gains in the province in last week’s federal election were credited largely to a backlash against the reductions. The lesson has not been lost on the federal Tories.

More likely to occur are firings at the senior level of the federal civil service

now that the Conservatives are in charge. They remember only too well what happened in 1957 when John Diefenbaker took power and decided not to make changes at the top. Looking back in his memoirs, Diefenbaker says:

“It became obvious as soon as we were out of office in 1963 that there were quite a number 'W 0 of senior people in the public service, about whom I had not known, who had simply been underground, quietly working against my government and waiting for the Liberals to return to power.” This time, some Conservatives are advocating that most or all deputy ministers be fired. Clark has in his briefing papers a study that argues that recalcitrant senior staff should be cut ruthlessly at the outset. But the Tory leader has not been so categorical, saying only that he wants the resignations of all deputy ministers on his desk “just in case ... I wanted to act on them.”

But it won’t be that easy. Privy Council Clerk Michael Pitfield, Ottawa’s most senior civil servant, last week did not submit his resignation. Others will follow his lead. Said one deputy minister: “If I offer my resignation, it would be tantamount to an admission of guilt, of partisanship. That’s the American system, not ours.” Instead, he is working hard to prepare for the transition and to avoid what he calls “the Diefenbaker trap” which pitted the civil servants against the politicians. Adds the bureaucrat: “I’m determined we’re going to give the new government a fair run.”

Nonetheless, some senior staffers will certainly go—voluntarily or involuntarily. Clark himself did not name names immediately after the election, but in the past he has singled out Pitfield, whom he describes as “a sort of Anglo-Saxon Pierre Trudeau.” Others likely include Ian Stewart, deputy minister of energy, Pierre Juneau,undersecretary of state, Gordon Robertson and Paul Tellier in the Federal-Provincial Relations office, as well as Mitchell Sharp, commissioner of the Northern Pipeline Agency. In a different category are Air Canada Chairman Bryce Mackasey, CBC President AÍ Johnson, Bud Drury, chairman of the National Capital Commission, and Edgar Benson, president of the Canadian Transport Commission. All but Johnson are former Liberal cabinet ministers appointed by Trudeau. They hold fixedterm appointments and are beyond Clark’s reach—although he might seek ways of buying them out.

Replacing those and other senior civil servants may prove harder than firing them, however. Clark’s advisers have drawn up a list of 500 businessmen and academics who might want to work in Ottawa. That sounds impressive, but Trudeau’s advisers have a similar list that is twice as long. “The problem is not finding suitable people,” says a Trudeau staffer. “It’s getting them to come to Ottawa.” Ian Urquhart