Throughout the history of Canadian government, few jobs have been as under-publicised as the clerk of the Privy Council, soon to be filled by the newly appointed John Hannaford, senior civil servant and former diplomat. While most Canadians would be hard-pressed to define his new job, Mr. Hannaford is not to be underestimated.
“Aside from the prime minister, the clerk of the Privy Council is the most powerful person in Ottawa,” Donald J. Savoie, a professor at Moncton University who studies public administration, told me. “So when a new employee is appointed, it matters.”
When Mr Hannaford officially takes over on June 24, he will become, alongside deputy ministers under each cabinet minister, the caretaker responsible for turning politicians’ policy ideas into action.
The clerk manages the deputy ministers and has three duties which sometimes overlap. He is the head of the public service, which is made up of impartial bureaucrats who stay put while politicians and political parties come and go.
The clerk also manages and coordinates the cabinet as its secretary and, perhaps most important of all, is the prime minister’s top adviser.
Professor Savoie said the clerk and the prime minister meet several times a week and that each brings a separate agenda.
“Many key decisions are made during these meetings,” he said, adding that those sessions are often more important than cabinet meetings. A cabinet minister, Professor Savoie said, once told him the cabinet had long since become a ‘focus group for the prime minister’.
The tendency to concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister, and by extension the clerk, has been going on for decades under both Liberal and Conservative governments. And Professor Savoie said it’s not necessarily a power grab.
Increasingly, the federal government is grappling with issues, such as climate change, that involve several ministries, departments and agencies, and the clerk’s role is to coordinate that work.
Part of this arrangement is that the clerk and the civil servants he commands to keep out of public view. The government were unable to provide me with a high resolution photograph of Mr Hannaford and the privy council office said he was unavailable for an interview.
The thinking behind that willful obscurity is based on the idea that the public service is there to support the government of the day, whatever its political flavour, and so let the politicians be the public face of the government.
But several laws actually remove decision-making powers from cabinet ministers and relinquish them to civil servants. The result, Professor Savoie said, is often situations such as recent backlogs in passport offices, as politicians have had to shoulder the blame for decisions in which they were neither involved nor consulted.
Luc Juillet, a public administration professor at the University of Ottawa, said there is a tendency among politicians to focus on new policies and programs rather than the less glamorous task of making sure the machinery of government runs smoothly.
“It’s not necessarily the kind of thing that drives most politicians,” he said.
Mr. Hannaford has an illustrious track record as a policy maker. A lawyer and diplomat who began his career in what was then called Foreign Affairs, he has been a major player in trade talks including the recent renegotiation of NAFTA; he has covered climate issues, most recently at Natural Resources Canada; and was once a foreign and defense policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau.
But absent from all of that, Professor Juillet noted, is a wealth of experience in government operations.
For Professor Savoie, the appointment of someone with Hannaford’s background in international relations and defense is a signal from Trudeau of what he now sees as the biggest challenges facing his government, which are largely international. They include allegations of Chinese meddling in Canadian elections, trade policy in the United States, global climate change and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The new international order is full of pitfalls and the prime minister needs a helping hand,” he said.
Norimitsu Onishi traveled to Winnipeg to report on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s donation of his former flagship store. Residents are debating whether it was an act of reconciliation with indigenous people who have played a vital role in the company’s history or an empty gift.
When I went to Alberta a few weeks ago to report on this week’s provincial election, I found a number of lifelong Conservative voters who have been put off by Premier Danielle Smith’s anti-vaccination stance and her libertarian agenda and sometimes by the inflammatory rhetoric. Mrs Smith’s United Conservative Party government returned to power, but with substantially fewer seats in the legislature.
The fires continue to burn after blanketing Halifax in smoke, consuming homes and forcing thousands to evacuate within the metropolitan city limits.
In the ever-evolving Canadian anti-smoking warnings, individual cigarettes will carry messages printed on their paper, including “Poison in every puff.”
Born in Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has written about Canada for the New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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