Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signs a document during a cabinet shuffle as Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick looks on at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on March 1, 2019.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

“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.”

Story continues below advertisement

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies