Every now and then, the Liberal government does something so clearly and perfectly right that it has to be an accident. Take the appointment of Thomas K. Shoyama (above) as Deputy Minister of Finance. He has not been in the job long enough to have had much impact; outsiders, therefore, cannot yet tell what Prime Minister Trudeau wrought when he elevated Shoyama, but insiders know. Their understanding is based on some knowledge of the role of our deputy ministers.
The Public Service Employment Act, political textbooks and learned journals are full of information, most of it wrong, about the senior civil service in Canada. There is, for example, the laughable notion that civil servants have nothing to do with politics, the malarkey that they do not set policy, and that merit alone determines the pecking order in Ottawa. This is good clean stuff and full of laughs, but it will not help you to understand what actually happens in the national capital. For that you don’t need a political science textbook but something closer to the Order of Worship of one of the snootier and more ceremonious churches.
Deputy ministers are high priests, tenders of the chapel of power. It is their job to keep the memos coming, no matter what bitter struggles rage in the outside world. The MPs meet as a College of Cardinals up on Parliament Hill to decide such abstract issues as the infallibility of the Prime Minister (he was infallible from 1968 to 1972, fallible from 1972 to 1974; now he is infallible again), and to pass down encyclicals, but the real running of affairs is in the hands of the experts in the bureaucracy guided by the deputy ministers of the departments. They make decisions brimming with political implications every day of their working lives, decisions as to who shall receive grants, and who shall not, who shall be allowed to enter the country, and who shall not, how money shall be spent, and on whom.
The notion that all these decisions are made without reference to politics is one of the outstanding howlers of our era. Civil servants are political in two ways. First, the fundamental attitudes they bring to decision-making reek of politics whether they are humanitarian or technocratic, right-wing or left-wing. Secondly, they are political in the party sense. They are, of necessity, attuned to the party in power. Most of them were weaned on the notion that God meant the Liberals to rule the land and they behave accordingly. They don’t wave their loyalty about in public, but to call them nonpolitical is like saying that archbishops have no religion. The deputy minister I know best always refers to the Diefenbaker years as “the interregnum.” And he means it.
Civil servants always talk about “protecting the minister,” but what they are really protecting is their own jobs, their own power — in short, the status quo. For the last half-century, the party of the status quo in Canada has been called Liberal, and our senior civil servants are thus Liberal not only by habit and inclination but out of self-preservation. This arrangement assures that no matter what name appears on the stationery at 24 Sussex, it is the same merry elves who lose our mail, delay our permits, deny our requests, waste our money and perform all the other necessary functions of civilization. This is known as the integrity of the civil service. In my experience watching how Ottawa works, I have found that bureaucrats make sure only they and their friends, relatives and allies get the good jobs, the fat contracts and the ripe opportunities to commit mayhem and rapine on the body politic. This is known as the merit system. And at the top of the merit system and in the centre of integrity stand the deputy ministers.
Now Tommy Shoyama has joined the brotherhood. His elevation comes at a trying time. When Pierre Trudeau came to power in 1968, he set up his own priesthood in the Prime Minister’s Office in line with his view that the political process should be formed from the clash of “countervailing forces.” The resulting carnage was terrible and the attempt failed, in the long run, because the technocrats Trudeau ushered in were less responsive, more abrasive — less political, in the fundamental sense — than the men they replaced. Trudeau was punished at the polls in 1972 and reformed, curbing the PMO, demoting many of the high functionaries, returning to the old religion. The results were satisfactory — the system really does work — and that, among other things, helped Trudeau back to majority power in 1974. He promptly cranked up the PMO again, and made Michael Pitfield, his friend and confidant, the highest priest of all -—Clerk of the Privy Council. Trudeau is a clever man, but a slow learner. The battle broke out all over again, and deputy ministers were soon hurling themselves out of Ottawa offices.
In the midst of this new strife, with no less than six deputy ministers gone or going, Shoyama was made Deputy Minister of Finance and that seems a curious thing. He is political, certainly, but of the wrong stripe. He was the chief economic adviser for the CCF in Saskatchewan and an acknowledged socialist. He has other unacceptable views, too. He believes strongly in civil liberties (as a Japanese Canadian, he lost them during World War II, so he is quiet, but firm, on the subject); he believes in government intervention in the economy (he holds that resource planning, for example, is too important to leave to the private sector) and he has always been an enemy of the status quo (in Saskatchewan, one of his jobs was to bring outlandish ideas to the cabinet — to shake up the government).
In his new job, Shoyama is second highest priest of all, inferior only to Pitfield. He can exert a strong influence on economic policy, and his humanity, humor and common sense may be translated into new approaches to our common plight. How did it happen?
I believe there are two possibilities. One is that all of Shoyama’s body fluids were drained away one night while he was asleep and replaced with Gestetner fluid — he has become, in fact, just another Liberal mandarin, and will change nothing. But I prefer the other possibility. I think the whole thing was a ghastly mistake.
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