Those who have worked alongside Peter Wallace say he must have hated the attention.
The cabinet secretary and head of the Ontario Public Service is the sort of civil servant who is allergic to the spotlight. Recently he found himself squarely in it anyway, as the provincial opposition unearthed a draft cabinet presentation from just after the 2011 election – when Mr. Wallace was deputy finance minister – in which he took sharply worded aim at the governing Liberals’ “fantastical” fiscal plan.
But then, discomfort is something to which Mr. Wallace should be well accustomed. And for the rest of us, the documents helped illustrate the difficult position he is in.
Even more so now than a couple of years ago, he is the strongest voice within government for those who believe the province has not done enough to carve a serious path out of deficit. That makes him the bearer of a lot of bad news, as does the gas-plants scandal left behind by former premier Dalton McGuinty. The result, insiders say, is significant tension between Mr. Wallace and rookie Premier Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet.
For every top civil servant, there is some challenge in striking the right balance between protecting the integrity of the civil service and looking out for the interests of political masters. A by-the-book bureaucrat, Mr. Wallace – who does not do media interviews – leans more heavily toward the former than the latter. And while he is said to have fashioned a fairly good working relationship with Ms. Wynne and her top advisers, some other Liberals view him with a hint of suspicion.
That dynamic was most noticeable this spring, when it was reported that tempers flared during a cabinet meeting about the amount of documentation related to the cancellation of power plants being released to the legislature’s Justice committee.
Those familiar with the situation say that, after Mr. McGuinty got into trouble for being too obstructionist, Mr. Wallace and other bureaucrats took very literally an edict from Ms. Wynne’s office that even documents only tangentially linked to the issue should be handed over. The Liberals seem not to have anticipated how much embarrassment that could cause, and some ministers essentially faulted Mr. Wallace for not saving them from themselves.
In a confluence of flashpoints, the document dump is what brought Mr. Wallace’s fiscal views out into the open. And it’s those concerns that are likely to cause the most substantive and high-stakes disagreement going forward.
Already, the 2014 budget is shaping up as a major test of Ms. Wynne’s commitment to fiscal responsibility. Unable to rely on savings from short-term wage restraint, as it did this year, the government will have to balance the need for major cost-cutting structural reforms with its hope to win support again from the third-party NDP.
There is little mystery which side of that debate Mr. Wallace will be on. The thrust of his “fantastical” charge was that the Liberals established a timeline for getting out of deficit with little idea of what it would require. He and other bureaucrats continue to argue that the government will either need to push back its timeline for getting back to balance, or commit to spending cuts and perhaps tax increases beyond what most politicians have yet considered.
Liberals might understandably be inclined to take Mr. Wallace’s warnings with a grain of salt, since he has developed something of a Chicken Little reputation during three decades in the OPS. In that now-public document, for instance, he predicted the 2011-12 deficit would come in higher than the projected $16-billion; it turned out to be lower.
Still, it’s hard to disagree with his basic assessment that the Liberals (and for that matter, opposition parties) have underplayed the pain ahead. The civil service is now stuck telling a premier who’s promised a less single-minded focus on “austerity” that her predecessor’s push on that front wasn’t enough to begin with.
Appointed in late 2011, Mr. Wallace faces no imminent risk to his job security. Even if they wanted to toss him overboard, and there is no evidence that they do, the Liberals know it would look awful.
So for the foreseeable future, Mr. Wallace will continue to tell the government things it doesn’t want to hear. He may avoid documenting it in a way that opposition politicians can easily turn up, but behind the scenes there will be plenty more uncomfortable moments.