Several of the most senior officials in the federal Finance Department are leaving government – or have already left – after playing key roles in shaping Ottawa’s massive policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andrew Marsland, the department’s senior assistant deputy minister for tax policy, has announced internally that he will retire from the public service on July 7. As the department’s top official for all matters related to taxation, Mr. Marsland is frequently called on to explain the government’s emergency programs at parliamentary committees.
Richard Botham, who is assistant deputy minister for economic development and corporate finance, is planning to retire on Aug. 6. In late April, Ava Yaskiel stepped down as associate deputy minister. Nick Leswick was promoted from inside the department to fill that role as of June 1.
Another move has Tim Duncanson reducing his role to a part-time position. Mr. Duncanson came to the department in 2015 with high-level experience in the private sector, including as a former managing director at Onex Corp.
He has been the department’s specialist on major files related to commercial transactions, including the government’s 2018 decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline and takeover the related expansion project. He was also involved in the consideration of a federal equity investment in Bombardier’s C-Series airliner, which did not come to fruition. (A separate department ultimately approved a $372.5-million loan to Bombardier in 2017.)
While Parliament approved the 2021 budget earlier this month, there is still work ahead for Finance officials to sort out details of major programs announced in that document. New measures included expanded child care and incentives for small businesses to move more services online.
Department officials will also guide Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland in calibrating the phaseout of federal support spending as COVID-19 recedes and the economy recovers. Complicating that work is the fact that the public service could soon find itself in caretaker mode should the Liberal government trigger an election for late summer or early fall.
All of these senior departures have occurred on the heels of last year’s major leadership shakeup at Finance Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in August that his finance minister, Bill Morneau, would be leaving politics.
Then in early December, Paul Rochon announced that he would be relinquishing his role as deputy minister of the department after six years in the job. He briefly took a position with the Privy Council Office, but it was announced this month that he is taking on a private-sector role as executive adviser to Deloitte Canada. He has also joined the advisory board of the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.
Mr. Rochon was replaced in December by Michael Sabia, a move that generated significant attention at the time, given that he had been out of the federal public service for decades. Mr. Sabia has held several senior corporate roles, including chief financial officer of CN Rail, chief executive of Bell Canada Enterprises and 11 years as the head of Quebec’s pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.
Elliot Hughes, a senior adviser with Summa Strategies and a former policy adviser to Mr. Morneau, said changes at senior levels is normal and can be a good thing, but the number of departures in such a short period of time is noteworthy.
“Beyond the loss of institutional memory, it comes at a pivotal time for a department expected to play a key role in imagining Canada’s post-COVID economy,” he said.
Kevin Maillet, a spokesperson for the department, said the changes are part of a “continuing evolution” and that some senior officials stayed beyond their planned retirement dates in order to assist during COVID-19.
“Staff at all levels have been working at an extraordinary pace and intensity for an extended period through the pandemic in order to develop and roll out critical emergency support for Canadians,” he said. “We will soon announce further appointments with respect to the next generation of leadership in the Department of Finance.”
Several former department officials told The Globe and Mail that the summer is a good time for staffing changes because it marks the start of a new budget cycle, which involves policy research over the summer in advance of a fall economic update and spring budget. The fact that a federal election appears to be on the horizon could also be a factor for senior officials in deciding when to leave.
In addition, the timing is likely influenced by the torrid pace that top finance officials have kept over the past year-and-a-half, as they developed and launched massive new programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alan Freeman, a former assistant deputy minister at Finance Canada who is now an honourary senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s School of Public and International Affairs, said those positions can be “gruelling,” particularly during budget time. He also said the arrival of a new leader in Mr. Sabia could have spurred further organizational changes.
“It’s not hugely surprising that there would be some changes after new deputy comes [in],” he said.
Kevin Page, the former Parliamentary Budget Officer who now leads the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy, said the volume of senior departures is unusually high.
“That’s a large number,” he said. “That’s significant just by the sheer breadth of it.”
Mr. Page said some of the individuals, including Mr. Marsland and Mr. Botham, would be near the normal age for retiring from the public service. He said that assistant deputy ministers would have likely been involved in virtually all of the decisions related to the dozens of emergency programs that were unveiled over the past year-and-a-half during the pandemic.
I’m sure they’re exhausted,” he said.
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