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NDP Leader Jack Layton takes a question at a campaign stop in Winnipeg on April 27, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
NDP Leader Jack Layton takes a question at a campaign stop in Winnipeg on April 27, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Top bureaucrats told to examine NDP pledges, especially on Constitution: insiders Add to ...

Political parties aren't the only ones combing through the NDP election platform to see what the promises would look like in reality.

The Canadian Press has learned that the highest ranks of the federal civil service have also been told to take their sharp pencils to the New Democrat policies as they prepare for the next government to take over - especially when it comes to the Constitution.

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The civil service always keeps a very close eye on the ups and downs of election campaigns so that it can be prepared for any electoral outcome and help the new government transition smoothly to power.

This time, however, the constitutional issue was not even on the back burner until the middle of the campaign, when NDP Leader Jack Layton brought it up during the French debate.

Turning separatist semantics on their head, Mr. Layton declared that he wanted to create the "winning conditions" to have Quebec included in the Constitution.

Under some clerks of the Privy Council, the civil service is told to prepare several different versions of briefing books so that they will be ready for any electoral outcome.

But public-service mandarins haven't really taken the NDP seriously in the past.

In 2004, for example, the party actually approached senior government officials with a request for meetings so that the party could present and explain its policies.

Their request was rebuffed, and the New Democrats were made to understand it was because they were not serious contenders for power.

This time, NDP officials aren't asking for the extra attention and polls suggesting a spike in New Democrats' support means they don't need to.

"We haven't gone looking for discussions with the senior public service," said one party insider. "We don't want to presume the outcome."

Another senior NDP campaign official said there is a committee that is separate from the campaign team of New Democrats in Ottawa that is preparing various scenarios for Mr. Layton based on a variety of possible election results.

Before the NDP began its recent surge in the polls, the civil service knew it had to pay more attention, sources say. That's because even if the NDP went nowhere, the other parties - especially the Bloc Québécois - would make sure that comment would not simply fade away.

"It makes sense" to examine the policy implications of Mr. Layton's positions on Quebec, said Kathy Brock, an associate professor at the Queen's University School of Policy Studies. "That's what I'd be doing."

While the bureaucracy is automatically analyzing all the parties' positions, a special reminder to pay more attention to the NDP and the constitution is helpful, Prof. Brock said.

"They have to work within the mandate of what they're told to do. They have to be told, 'Look, it's not just the Liberal option now."'

PCO officials would not comment except to say that "briefing material is being prepared."

The Privy Council Office is charged with ensuring a peaceful transition, providing non-partisan advice to new ministers and senior staffers on government operations and policy options.

As a matter of course, PCO officials and deputy ministers provide the new government's transition team with briefing books right after the election. Later, when a cabinet is named, the new ministers also received detailed briefing books on their portfolios.

Most of the material in the books is pro forma - the basics on government operations, ethics, procedures, how to put together a Prime Minister's Office, what types of appointments need to be made, and so on.

Even on the policy front, most of the advice can be cobbled together easily before the election results are known, since much of government does on a daily basis is without controversy - such as maintaining parks and sending out cheques.

The bureaucracy's job is somewhat more delicate when it comes to policy.

Civil servants will have kept tabs on every move and promise made during the election campaign and prepared policy material accordingly.

That includes paying heed to statements made by the third and fourth parties, especially in the age of minority governments, insiders say.

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