Politics

In his book, Michael Wernick says little while disclosing a lot

Michael Wernick spent a long and successful career in the federal government, rising to become deputy minister of the department then known as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Then, in the early days of the Trudeau government in 2016, he was the somewhat surprising choice to become clerk of the Privy Council, the country’s top bureaucrat.

Largely unknown to the public, Wernick was thrust into the spotlight in 2019 when he was forced to resign for his role in the SNC-Lavalin scandal, after making a couple of unfortunate appearances before a House of Commons committee during which he praised Trudeau ministers and took an unusually belligerent, combative approach with opposition MPs. 

His reputation shattered and his ability to command respect from MPs of all stripes destroyed, Wernick stepped down.

Now he’s come out with a book, Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics, a slim volume he says was inspired by Machiavelli’s 16th-century treatise on the exercise of power, The Prince. But don’t expect much insightful political thought here. It’s more like a Coles Notes guide to Canadian politics.

Nor is it memoir. After talking too much when he appeared before MPs in March of 2019, Wernick isn’t saying much of anything in this publishing debut.

The book provides advice to the prime minister, ministers, and deputy ministers in simple and direct language. In his advice to a PM, for example, he says it’s tough to select a cabinet because you need to balance regional interests with gender, race, ethnicity, and the abilities of individual candidates.  

“Some ministers turn out to be solid, well prepared, and persuasive at the cabinet table. Others not so much.” That often results later in a cabinet shuffle, Wernick reveals. Who would have known? 

There’s a lot to say about the need for proper time management, a reminder that ministers are also local MPs, political organizers, spouses, and parents, and they need a good scheduling assistant. “Being prime minister is all about continuous multitasking, which won’t stop until you leave the job.” So much to do. So little time to do it.

The job of Privy Council clerk is a complex one. The clerk is the prime minister’s deputy minister and the secretary to the cabinet. But he or she is also the top official of Canada’s 300,000 federal public servants, the ultimate boss of everyone, from a corrections officer in New Brunswick to a deputy minister of defence in Ottawa.

But the role of the non-partisan public service doesn’t seem to figure too high on Wernick’s list of priorities. In giving advice to a new deputy minister, he states: “Your most important task is to secure and maintain the trust and confidence of the minister.” There’s not a word about the fact that a deputy minister is essentially the chief executive of his or her department, responsible for the management and leadership of thousands of loyal public servants.

Nor is there much about the clerk’s role in protecting public servants against attacks from ministers or other politicians, often lobbed in their direction in an effort to deflect attention from their own failings. And since public servants can’t speak for themselves, you would hope that, at least internally, the clerk would stand up for them. 

Then again, Wernick sees the role of public servants as little more than the loyal implementers of the political will of the party in power. He doesn’t have much interest in public servants’ role in protecting the broader public interest or in fashioning public policy.

In an interview with Maclean’s to promote the book, Wernick makes this startling statement: “I don’t think it’s the role of the public service to be the originator of new ideas. These usually come from democratic politics.” He also thinks academics do the same job better.

All this is probably news to the phalanxes of policy and strategy shops dotted throughout federal government departments, not to mention the thousands of students diligently studying at public-policy schools in Canadian universities, planning for a career in policy development with the federal government. Maybe it’s time for a professional rethink.

Nowhere in the book does Wernick fundamentally question the centralization of power, or worry about political operatives in the Prime Minister’s Office giving marching orders to cabinet ministers, a fairly common occurrence these days.

It’s not as if the public service and the clerk of the Privy Council aren’t facing huge problems. I’ll name a few.

–In the wake of the Phoenix-pay-system debacle, which happened in real time under Wernick’s watch, what can be said about the public service’s ability to manage large and complex projects? If we didn’t learn our lesson from Phoenix, are we doomed to repeats?

–A half century after the implementation of official bilingualism, why is the role of French in the federal government weaker than ever?

–In spite of excellent pay, pension benefits, and iron-clad job security, why is the federal public service such an unhappy place to work? Talk to any federal manager and she’ll admit she spends much of her time dealing with seemingly intractable HR issues.

You won’t hear a word about these questions in Wernick’s little book. We’ll have to wait for the sequel. Or maybe he just doesn’t think all these boring issues are worth much thought. After all, there’s so much to do and so little time to do it.

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