Asking government staff to identify “enemy stakeholders” for incoming cabinet ministers is unprecedented and a sign of the Conservative government’s increasingly combative stance with the public service and other groups, one union leader says.
Earlier this month, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) sent a “check list” of instructions to department staff creating “transition binders” for new ministers. One request was: “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders.”
Government offices typically take a more formal tone, even when referring to their critics.
“To talk about it in terms of enemies and friends is just unheard of,” said Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, representing scientists and professionals in government, including the federal civil service.
“It sounds like a very closed camp. Now it’s about enemies and friends, not people who have different opinions. And that’s really what they’re saying: if you have a different opinion, you are the enemy,” Mr. Corbett said Tuesday.
The July 4 e-mail memo also asked for a list of “bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer,” though that request was withdrawn in another e-mail four hours later. The e-mails became public this week when copies were anonymously sent to several media outlets, including The Globe and Mail.
The main memo was signed by Nick Koolsbergen, who is listed in the government’s directory as an “Issue Manager” in the PMO. The memo, as well as a follow-up, was actually sent by Erica Furtado, an executive assistant in the PMO’s issues management section. She copied Mr. Koolsbergen on each memo. The PMO declined comment on the leak, neither confirming nor denying its authenticity.
“While we don’t comment on internal communications, we are collaborating with our Ministers, especially new Ministers, to ensure they are fully briefed so they can continue their work on behalf of Canadian taxpayers,” PMO spokesman Carl Vallée said.
Transition binders are customarily prepared for incoming ministers. Of the 10 requests included in the check list, many were innocuous, including what issues a minister might soon expect to face and what meetings have been scheduled.
Others show the extent to which the PMO is involved in ministerial operations. It asks for a list of “What to avoid: pet bureaucratic projects” as well as “lines” – talking points, presumably – on private bills. Mr. Koolsbergen also indicates a discussion about “sword / shield issues” during Question Period, information that would be given to incoming ministers. The PMO asked for an electronic copy of each ministry’s “issues binder.”
Staff in ministers’ offices are considered political staff, and are not part of the bureaucracy. The Public Service Alliance of Canada said Tuesday it didn’t know whether its members – non-partisan government staff – would have been tasked with helping develop lists of “enemy stakeholders.” The union executive said it didn’t yet know of any complaints brought by its members, and rejected the combative stance of the PMO.
“This government should be listening to all Canadians, not just those who agree with their policies,” Chris Aylward, PSAC’s National Executive Vice-President, said in an e-mailed statement.
The relationship between political and bureaucratic staff is eroding, Mr. Corbett said.
“I believe there is a very tense relationship between the politicians and the bureaucrats. It’s more tense than it was, because they’re going through program review again,” he said. Program reviews are cost-cutting exercises, undertaken as the federal government tries to balance its books. Mr. Corbett said his union members are increasingly frustrated by what they see as illogical decisions, citing the shuttering of the Experimental Lakes research area as an example. “My members kind of grow more and more cynical with this particular government,” he said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper shuffled his cabinet on Monday, introducing eight new members and slightly more women to try and give a fresh face as the Conservatives’ poll numbers have slid. Of the 39 ministers, 27 take on new files – and will get a transition binder.
With a report from John IbbitsonReport Typo/Error