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Former auditor general Sheila Fraser. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Former auditor general Sheila Fraser. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Bruce Anderson: Conservatives will only lose fighting Sheila Fraser Add to ...

For a long time, it hasn’t been fashionable to appreciate the work of public servants. Rather, the trend is to bemoan their pensions, benefits, travel expenses, and to imagine they earn too much and achieve too little.

This is often unfair, and generally counter-productive. It demotivates people we should want to have fired up on our behalf. And it makes it harder to attract good people to public service. We’ll end up with weaker talent or paying more to find people willing to endure the constant criticism.

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This week, Michael Horgan, the deputy minister of Finance, announced his retirement after a career spanning 36 years. I’ve met him on a number of occasions over the years, and know him to be extraordinarily bright, decent and hard working. We need lots more like him.

Another (former) public servant, retired auditor-general Sheila Fraser, was in the news this week as well. Unlike most public servants, Ms. Fraser became famous and popular. She spoke bluntly and fearlessly about how our dollars were being abused by the Chretien government through its sponsorship program.

When in 2004 Ms. Fraser made the case that Canadians were being ripped off, it was only a matter of time before the Liberal Party was kicked out of office. In the evidence she tabled and the way she made her case, she earned a reputation as someone who could be trusted to tell it like it is.

This week, she weighed in on the Fair Elections Act, joining a large chorus of critics, but with a voice that will stand out. She seldom discusses politics, and appears to carry no partisan ambition. Asked by the Chief Elections Officer to provide an evaluation of the bill, she found it nothing less than an “attack on democracy.”

(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail’s easy explanation)

How the Conservatives respond to her critique of their bill is no trivial matter.

Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Polievre has said the bill is terrific as it is. He allows that it’s possible someone might find a flaw and a way to improve it. But he seems not to have heard of any yet. His cocksure style makes it easy to imagine the government will do little but pay lip service – actually more like curled lip service – to ideas from outside the Conservative Party tent.

Some Tory partisans seem tempted to dismiss Ms. Fraser as someone with no relevant expertise. As rebuttals go, this is a terrible choice, and will backfire badly if they persist with it.

Up to now, many Canadians didn’t think this bill would make much of a difference in their lives or to the health of our democracy. Few regular voters were as irate as were editorialists, politicians, political activists and academics.

The first, and often the biggest, challenge for critics of a government initiative is to get the public to pay attention. Once that’s done, it’s quite a bit easier to get people to oppose a change.

The importance of Ms. Fraser’s intervention lies in her ability to a) attract attention among otherwise disengaged voters and b) draw on a remarkable level of trust that she earned through her public service.

These days, combatants in so many debates work hard to find trusted third-party voices. Few come with as much credibility as Ms. Fraser, someone known for having a clear eye for shenanigans or worse.

If the Conservatives are wise, they will drop the combative, know-it-all-ness that has marked their approach to this bill and embrace the need for amendments and a broader consensus. And sooner, rather than later.

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacaus Data, a regular member of CBC The National’s “At Issue” panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

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