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Lana Payne: Politicizing the public service — never a good idea

When swim moms and dads are buzzing about something other than our kids, take note.

Lana Payne

At a recent St. John’s meet, parents between heats were not merely chatting best times, seconds shaved off their kids’ times or the long drive home when their kid missed their goals, they were talking about Bern Coffey — but, more pointedly, the government’s handling of the entire affair.
Coffey had been the Ball administration’s top bureaucrat, head of the Executive Council, but resigned last month after it became known that he had continued to practise law and represented clients suing government agencies including Western Health, Labrador Grenfell Health and Nalcor Energy. He did this while performing the duties of clerk. Prior to being appointed the clerk, he had been a candidate for leadership of the provincial Liberal party.
Let’s be clear: as clerk of Executive Council, Coffey is privy to or has access to or can access almost everything.
Coffey and Premier Dwight Ball say adequate protections were in place so Coffey could not access information that would have benefited his clients in their lawsuits. But this doesn’t really matter. It is the appearance of conflict that is enough to make this a big political mess for the premier.
The Coffey appointment was a problem in and of itself. Taking a partisan, whether he was a raging one or not, and making him the top civil servant for the government was never going to end well.
When you reach outside the professional civil service to fill the role of top public servant and when you choose someone with a partisan background, this leads to the further politicalizing of the civil service. And that is a problem. It is a problem for democracy, because who now serves the public interest versus the political interests of the day?
Public servants are supposed to serve the public interest, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, our communities under the direction of an elected government. They must uphold the public trust. It is a basic tenet of responsible government. A professional and non-partisan public service is (as the Treasury Board of Canada website points out) integral to our democracy.
The blurring of lines between political and partisan appointments and those who should be independent, professional and non-partisan civil servants didn’t start with the Ball government.
It has been a problem for quite some time including under the previous PC government in Newfoundland and Labrador and with many federal governments. The Harper government was notorious for it.
And it adds to the cynicism people have about politics. It sends a very clear message to the civil service that it is not their independent, professional advice that is valued, but rather what is politically acceptable or expected.
Governments make political appointments all the time. They give their friends plum positions. But when a government chooses to appoint a partisan as the head of the civil service, this is another matter entirely.
In 2015, Ralph Heintzman, who is with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former civil servant responsible for both the federal government’s Values and Ethics Code and its Communications Policy, wrote about renewing the public service for Canada 2020, an independent think-tank concerned with redefining the role of the federal government. Many of his points and recommendations are easily transferable to provincial governments.
In his research paper “Public Service Renewal,” Heintzman called for a “new moral contract” because the boundary between political and public service values had become blurred at the highest levels.
Heintzman says the public service appears to have “gradually lost sight of the necessary boundary between political and public service values.” This, of course, is the result when the politicians fill the public service with political, partisan appointments.
Heintzman says the “increasing hyper-politicization of all public debate (the ‘permanent campaign’), tighter central control over all aspects of government and politics, and the growing importance given to government communications,” have contributed to the politicizing of the public service.
This certainly described the Harper-era of politics, but it also applies somewhat to Newfoundland and Labrador politics, too.
It results in tremendous pressure on the professionalism and non-partisanship of the public service. It undermines, says Heintzman, “the very values and ethics of public service, especially its non-partisan ethos, and its value of speaking truth to power.”
The Coffey affair was a problem before the moonlighting became known. The moonlighting made it more so.
The question now becomes how does the Ball administration repair the damage to the image of the public service? Done right, this might also help with the horrendous morale problem within government as well.
The government can start by not appointing another partisan to lead the public service.

Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.

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