There are 27 ministers taking on new portfolios in the federal cabinet this week, and if some of the staff in the Prime Minister’s Office had their way, all would be hard at work learning whom to avoid in their next role.
As leaked e-mails purport to show, a pair of PMO issues-management staff asked unidentified cabinet ministers’ staffers to outline “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders” in briefing books used to bring newly appointed ministers up to speed. Initially, they also hoped to list “bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer” – also to be avoided – but the latter directive was thankfully scrapped a few hours later.
Such nakedly with-us-or-against-us politicking does nothing to help Canadian government work well. That the Conservatives, who are often criticized as overly combative and too quick to attack, might see critics as enemies is perhaps not surprising; that they would be so brazen about blackballing them is cause for concern.
Such attitudes about “friends” and “enemies” are not unexpected – though not admirable – among fiercely competing political parties, and indeed sometimes among factions within such parties. The relationship, however, between the prime minister and the cabinet and their staffs, on the one hand, and the civil service, on the other, is not – and should never be regarded as – a partisan struggle. Rather, the elected office-holders and the continuing bureaucracy should be complementary to each other.
To many, the government has a reputation for being cool, even antagonistic, to the advice of bureaucrats. The civil service is not perfect, but it is a valuable repository of non-partisan evidence and institutional knowledge. To treat some civil servants as obstinate and best ignored – or even to demonize them – is neither helpful nor healthy for Canada or its governance. Any competent human-resources manager would know better than to permit disdain for much of a workforce.
It remains unclear which stakeholder groups might have fallen on which side of the requested friend-and-enemy ledgers, or whether such lists were ever created. Were environmentalists, left-wingers or labour groups to be tuned out? Now that the e-mails have attracted backlash, the answer may not soon be known. But to those who hoped that Monday’s cabinet shuffle might yield a refreshed, more open-minded government, the PMO missive is not a promising start.
“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Abraham Lincoln is said to have asked rhetorically. In the political real world, that is asking a bit much. But it is not unreasonable to expect ministers to listen to those who hold views the government finds unsympathetic and make a real effort to engage them.