Former top federal civil servant Michael Wernick says he has written a nonfiction book drawn from his more than three decades of experience in Ottawa, including time spent in cabinet rooms with ministers and prime ministers.
In an interview, Mr. Wernick said the book, titled Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics, is a “modest contribution” to Canada’s political literature, intended give people who are studying Canadian government, or those generally interested in it, another resource.
Mr. Wernick resigned as head of the federal public service in 2019, after opposition parties accused him and officials inside the Liberal government of improperly pressuring former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to strike a remediation deal in order to avoid criminal charges for SNC-Lavalin, an engineering and construction firm. Mr. Wernick denied the accusation, but said in a resignation letter that there was no path for him to have a relationship of “mutual trust and respect with the leaders of the opposition parties” ahead of the 2019 election.
Mr. Wernick, who lives in Ottawa, served as the 23rd clerk of the Privy Council Office starting in 2016. Over the course of his nearly 38-year public-service career he worked in various departments and agencies and collaborated closely with three prime ministers and their cabinets.
He is now an adjunct professor at Carleton University. In speaking to various audiences, he said, he realized that most of the existing material about how Canadian government works was not written by practitioners. What little practitioner-authored material is available is becoming dated, he added.
He said that, while there is nothing wrong with writings on government by academics and journalists, those writers have not been in the cabinet room and haven’t sat in briefings with prime ministers. He said his book tries to capture what it’s really like to be involved in those conversations.
Mr. Wernick said his book was a pandemic project – something productive for him to do during the long months of lockdown. It is due to be published on Oct. 25 by UBC Press. The publisher’s description of the book says it offers tips, insider knowledge, and advice on what it takes to govern effectively.
The book is not a memoir or a collection of anecdotes and stories. Mr. Wernick describes it as a focused piece of work on the world of prime ministers and cabinet ministers in Canada.
Most Canadians only see political leaders in two-minute extracts drawn from 45-minute question periods in the House of Commons, or in the odd clip of a press scrum, Mr. Wernick said.
“I wanted to open up how these people actually spend their days and their time, and what is the actual tradecraft, as I put it, of the job they do,” he said.
“This is not a book about what governments should do – whether they should have a carbon tax or legalize cannabis or raise the GST to pay down the debt. That’s what governments do and Canadians will make that decision soon enough.”
He said the book provides his perspective on the constants that exist across governments, regardless of who is in power.
Mr. Wernick said one of those constants is that government is first and foremost about people – particularly politicians, who each have their own preferences, learning styles and ways of coming to decisions. He said it is the dynamics among those people that he really wants to make accessible.
Former PCO clerk Gordon Osbaldeston, who served in the role from 1982 to 1985, wrote a number of treatises on government, including one styled as a letter to a friend on how to become a successful cabinet minister. Mr. Wernick said Mr. Osbaldeston’s letter circulated for years in political science faculties, and that the book is partly an homage to Mr. Osbaldeston’s work.
Among the advice contained in the book, Mr. Wernick said, is that ministers must manage their time carefully, because there is always more to do, read, and see than is physically possible.
Gerald Butts, the former principal secretary to Mr. Trudeau, who left his position in February 2019 amid the SNC-Lavalin controversy, said on Twitter this week that Mr. Wernick’s book “should be mandatory reading for everyone thinking of working in politics.”
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