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Kevin Lynch, the former clerk of the Privy Council, was a highly trusted adviser to the PMO in Stephen Harper’s early days as Prime Minister.
Kevin Lynch, the former clerk of the Privy Council, was a highly trusted adviser to the PMO in Stephen Harper’s early days as Prime Minister.

The wizard of Ottawa, behind the curtain Add to ...

He helped push through the most important budget of the decade, oversaw Canada's strategy on Afghanistan and caused stirs when he decided to leave public life.

Yet Kevin Lynch, the former public service chief with unparalleled access to Stephen Harper, wonders if Canadians really knew what he did for a living. "One thing I'm kind of struck by is just how well or poorly folks actually understand the role," Mr. Lynch, the former clerk of the Privy Council, said in a rare interview recently, just weeks after leaving his job. "I worry that that there isn't as much broad-based understanding about our core institutions."

While it may be peculiar that such a powerful individual is barely known outside the few square kilometres that surround Parliament Hill, when it comes to Privy Council clerks, Mr. Lynch is an out-and-out celebrity. Over 3½ years of advising Mr. Harper, Mr. Lynch handled the rebranding of the Canadian civil service, directed the bureaucracy in pursuing the country's first major war in more than 50 years, helped shift Canada's foreign affairs focus and dealt with the most frightening economic crisis since the Great Depression.

And all of it was done under a minority government, a form of administration that is notoriously bad for long-term planning. "I think folks have forgotten how big a change it is doing public policy in a minority context," Mr. Lynch said. "It's not the same. That's not to say it's good or bad, but it is different, and I think all of us have to learn a little bit about how do you do, from the public service side, public policy in a minority."

Mr. Lynch had to become a quick study upon being appointed in February of 2006, not only in dealing with a minority, but with a neophyte Prime Minister and a group of cabinet ministers, most of whom had never been part of a governing executive.

By all accounts, Mr. Lynch was deeply relied upon by the PMO and cabinet in the early days. And despite the Prime Minister's concerns about the public service's Liberal inclinations, the two men were a good match. Like Mr. Harper, Mr. Lynch is a cerebral workaholic and trained economist, and was one of only a handful of bureaucrats that the Prime Minister would telephone directly. "They had economics in common, so that was a huge help," a PMO source said. "There was a massive flow of paper from Kevin to the PM and, as we know, the PM consumes written material at a voracious rate."

The two men worked closely together on many issues, including plans to slash income tax revenues in 2007. That same year, Mr. Lynch began focusing on difficulties in the asset-backed commercial paper market, which became a major part of the story of the world financial collapse. The clerk made sure that the Prime Minister was regularly briefed by finance department officials with expertise in the area, and put advice on the economy at the front of briefing books.

Mr. Lynch says now that dealing with the financial crisis and shepherding through the recent stimulus budget were high points of his tenure. But he gives much of the credit for Canada's economic resilience over the past year to the work performed by previous governments, when he was a senior public servant in the departments of industry and finance.

Eliminating the deficit, paying down the debt and fixing the Canada and Quebec pension plans - along with maintaining medicare - kept consumers from panicking in the same way that their U.S. counterparts did when they started losing their jobs. "I think the value of the Canadian structure has really come to the fore," he said. "We didn't invent it in the last year or two, but the fact is, it's been tested in the last year or two because of the global downturn and ... it's shown itself to be pretty good."

Perhaps the initiative most identified with Mr. Lynch internally was the change in foreign affairs focus from Africa and Europe to the Americas. It was he who was most responsible for pushing strengthened ties to the U.S. and to focus on rebuilding Canada's Arctic infrastructure. And while the new accent on aid to the Caribbean wasn't necessarily his idea, he supported it strongly.

The issue most close to Mr. Lynch's heart - at least the one he speaks most passionately about - is the effort to restock the civil service and make it an exciting place to work again. Mr. Lynch laments the fact that, in the 1990s, the bureaucracy cut its recruitment efforts to the bone, leaving a large gap within management ranks. Universities and colleges now find themselves flooded with recruiters and civil servants, including front-line workers like soldiers and development officials serving in Afghanistan.

Any assessment of Mr. Lynch's tenure needs to take the minority situation into account, says Donald Savoie, a University of Moncton expert in public administration.

"He was a consummate, professional civil servant during very, very difficult times," Dr. Savoie said.

Dr. Savoie offers the high praise of comparing Mr. Lynch's tenure to that of Gordon Robertson, who led the civil service from 1963 to 1975, seven years of which were minority governments, and to Arnold Heeney, who headed the bureaucracy from 1940 to 1949.

Dr. Savoie says that, like Mr. Robertson, Mr. Lynch was seen internally as non-partisan.

Ever discreet, Mr. Lynch won't discuss the difficulties of his time at the top, saying only that "everyone can do better." The former clerk also refuses to get into the government's near-death experience of last December, when the calamitous fall economic statement sparked the creation of the short-lived Liberal-NDP entente to take over the reins of government.

Then, of course, there's the manner of Mr. Lynch's own leave-taking, which triggered gossip that he and Mr. Harper's new chief of staff, Guy Giorno, couldn't get along. Some Tory government officials argue Mr. Lynch was not quick enough off the mark in disbursing the billions in stimulus money laid out in the January budget. Others say that the rift was overplayed, and that Mr. Lynch's access to the Prime Minister was unwisely restricted by Mr. Giorno. The truth won't be out until one of the men talks, but at least two high-level sources said Mr. Harper probably didn't need Mr. Lynch as much after the government's re-election in 2008.

"I think it's fair to say that, as time went on in government, the PM became a little more suspicious about the bureaucracy, a little less confident in their recommendations," one official said. "That doesn't mean he was suspicious of Lynch in particular, or lacking confidence in his abilities as an individual. But, in general, there was a sense that the pendulum was swinging in one direction and there needed to be a rebalancing of sorts."

Asked about the circumstances of his departure, Mr. Lynch will only say he wanted to go out on a high and that, after 33 years in the civil service, the time was ripe. "You never kind of wanted to stay too long," he said. "I actually left as interested in public policy and the public service as my first day on the job."

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