Two Dangers for Canadian Democracy

The New Wrinkle:  Activist Citizens Who Interfere with Vaccinations

Does Canada’s Public Service Have Too Much Power?

The New Wrinkle:  Activist Citizens Who Interfere with Vaccinations

In these most recent posts, I have been examining what should be done to strengthen democracy in Canada.  My readings have led me to focus primarily on institutional matters.  But there is a new wrinkle, the rise of grassroots anti-vaccination efforts and outright interference with other people being vaccinated.  These efforts are commonly reported as being well coordinated through social media, and sometimes supported, funded, and organized more centrally.  To Canada’s shame, some of these efforts actually originate in Canada and spread elsewhere, even as out-of-country efforts have effects in Canada.

Earlier this year, other provinces aided Ontario as it was threatened with an over-loaded health care system which nearly required triage to continue.  Now our three western provinces are so overwhelmed that Alberta nears the triage level, and the other two cannot help.  This time there seems to be no federal military help requested.  These situations are caused largely by unvaccinated people who not only exhaust services available to them when they become ill, but also diminish the system’s ability to treat other medical emergencies and illnesses.  Additionally, some people actively oppose and resist the governments’ efforts to deal with the health crisis. This is a new dynamic: neither elected government nor the public service are adequate to serve the public because of the public’s opposition and suicidal actions.

There are people who charge that the three western government, both the elected leaders and the medical professionals in the public service, have made wrong-headed decisions which have brought their provinces to this point. Now they have great difficulty changing approaches, and protecting the health providers who are being persecuted for doing the good and right things.  There is the possibility of incompetence among both elected and appointed officials.

The served, the rulers, and the servants are all weakening democracy in parts of Canada.  This is pretty frightening. 

Many of us will be dealing with our grief and others’ as well for a long, long time, even as we find our way out of this pandemic and walk directly into a climate crisis which is coming much, much earlier than anticipated.  Our lack of preparation for the climate crisis may be down to the same three groups’ failures to seek the common good, as with the current pandemic. 

We see proof that with the vaccinations and the ever-increasing acceptance of them, and the health services’ continuing to function, that most Canadians have the intelligence, the capability, and the right attitude to get us through all this. Our usually competent fundamental systems will help. I remain confident that we will do so.

Trying to solve the problems while honouring others’ democratic rights to disagree with the methods needed, is itself a significant problem for democracy as an institution.  But it is more significantly a problem for personal relationships as parents confront anti-vax children, and parents of newborns forbid unvaccinated grandparents to visit.  It is a problem for individual consciences as some health-care providers and educators refuse to be vaccinated and oppose it.  Probably the personal levels are where we must do our work to preserve democracy in Canada, even as we consider the institutional problems.  (There are certainly partisan political actors riding this wave, but there are never any partisan political resolutions of such problems – they serve only to put some peoples’ concerns on a back burner to simmer a while.)

Solving these problems will be personal, one-on-one work.

It is too early to “reconsider” all this as I do with other posts.  I don’t want to simply add to the well-intentioned chatter which permeates the news and other sites.  But I would be wrong to not give due regard to this new dynamic in preserving democracy.  It is not only the politicians and public service that matter.

Does Canada’s Public Service Have Too Much Power?

In my post “Canada’s Political Parties Inhibit Democracy’s Flourishing” of June this year, I wrote that “Government is complex, and one wonders whether ever-fresh blood in elected office leaves too much power in the civil service.”  (My American readers may be uninterested, in which case I refer you to After Trump:  Reconstructing the Presidency, by Bob Bauer and Jack Goldsmith, a feast it itself.  Written before the election, it is a detailed examination of what can and cannot be done through administrative action, what needs legislation, and the significance of court opinions in some matters.)

This is the problem I want to explore in this post.  I do so by examining some books on the topics.  One is Democracy in Canada: the Disintegration of Our Institutions, by Donald S. Savoie, a scholar in the fields of public administration and regional economic development, currently at the University of Moncton.  I have read his works for many years. He brings experience as an assistant deputy minister in several federal Canadian ministries, as well as a frequent outside consultant to the governments, along with long-time academic work.  He has published many works, my favourite being Whatever Happened to the Piano Teacher?  I have high regard for his work, although this latest has a great deal of repetition, and often reads as if he is very frustrated about recommendations not being implemented.  I was surprised at how many old documents he cites to assert current conclusions, but that may demonstrate that what he studies is not a frequent or recent subject for others (of which our second author complains, also).

He, and others he cites, emphatically criticize the current prime minister for centralizing power within the Office of the Prime Minister, more even than his predecessors.  His central thesis is that the constitutional arrangement of Canada, based on British legislation, was never constructed with due attention to the differences among regions, and that the latest tendencies in government seem even less adequate to meet the regional needs, outside Ontario and Québec.  This book is the pessimistic opinion of the public service’s ability to keep democracy healthy in Canada.

The second is The Machinery of Government:  Public Administration and the Liberal State, by Joseph Heath, professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Munck School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.  His is the optimistic work.  He wants to understand how the public service in Canada does and can provide ethical and fair service to the country, thereby reinforcing the health of our democracy.  He wants to provide a philosophical underpinning for this effort, and make explicit the otherwise vaguely expressed healthy democratic values which he finds in the public service.  He thinks that it is the very fact of the welfare state and its increasing complexity which seeks to meet the needs of an ever-more complex and demanding society, that necessarily leads to liberal democratic values.  This is ever more important as we deal with the New Wrinkle (above).

I will be reading at least two more books when the library’s purchase order is filled and I can borrow them:   Governing Canada:  a Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics, by our most recently retired (in unusual circumstances) Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, and An Agenda   for Democratic Reform in Canada,  by Robert Asselin, senior vice president at the Business Council of Canada, former senior director of public policy at Blackberry, policy and budget director to the Finance Minister, and an academic at several institutions.  Perhaps, if they add to my knowledge and understanding, I will write a subsequent post on them.


Savoie writes that representative democracy is not possible without political parties.  They perform five critical roles:  they offer candidates for office; engage citizens in politics; facilitate communications between Parliament, government, and citizens; educate citizens on policy; and make Parliamentary government work. – in theory.  But Savoie’s evaluation is that “…political parties are little more than election-day organizations.”  He quotes David Herle, a professional political operator who guided the winning election of the Ontario Liberal Party in 2014, and the catastrophically losing campaign in 2018: “’Parties don’t run on what their members think, and can’t, if they want to be successful.  They run on what will get them the most votes. It is a strategic marketing exercise rather than a genuine contest of ideas.’”

If Herle is right, as Savoie clearly thinks he is, those coming into office don’t really know what they will do when governing.  One could, cynically, suspect that they do know what they intend to do, but there is not necessarily a strong relationship between that and what they marketed. Nor does it mean that the public’s votes have given clear directions.  It means only that the party won with the largest plurality of votes and seats, both of which can happen without being elected by the majority of voters.  (A government in our multi-party environment with a majority of seats is very rarely elected by a majority of votes).

That being said, Savoie emphasizes, with many testimonies from scholars and government officials, including his earlier works, that in recent years the civil servants have been expected to manage the government but not recommend policy.  Yet, he says, their own preference is to develop policy rather than manage, believing that management is a less important function  –it’s for underlings.  Party pollsters, party leaders and their close advisors are better at managing regional issues in mapping out political strategies than local candidates who may wish to respond to the pressure of their electors.  And because most federal administration is located in the capital, rather than throughout regions, it is the politicians and their political appointees, rather than the civil service or local members of Parliament, who really know what is going on in the country.

If Savoie is correct, then, the answer to my question is that politicians need not be careerists to avoid being overrun by the civil service. 

However, if they arrive with their own agenda, partly or largely irrelevant to what the voters expected, that does not bode well for democracy.  We need only compare what party leaders proclaim as policy, with the results of parties’ policy process, to see whether the leader is concerned primarily to be the leader, or to be accountable to others.  This contest seems to be expected by the public:  the Conservative leader was recently asked during a debate, who was driving the bus:  the caucus, or he?  He answered that he was.  While he may be more moderate than many in his caucus, my concern for democracy makes me fear that leadership is so important to him, and his confidence in his own way so strong, that he is willing to ignore the values and opinions and knowledge of other elected officials.  Who faithfully carries out the will of the people? Is there a gap which the public service might fill?

Although we do not have government by cabinet, Savoie describes past cabinet ministers in four categories:  status (use their departments to keep them in the favourable public eye); mission (strong standing on their own, aside from the leader, and having their own political power); policy (came into office with their own expertise which they wanted to bring to bear in government); and process participants (want to deliver projects, make things happen, and strike deals}.  Some local Members may fit these categories as well.  I personally know some Members who were elected without having any particular idea of what they want to accomplish.  I also refer the reader to Bill Graham’s Call of the World:  a Political Memoir, Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes:  Success and Failure in Politics, Jean Chretien’s books, and Celina Caeser-Chavannes’ Can You Hear Me Now?  They may wait for direction from the Centre (the Prime Minister, his advisors and pollsters, the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office), which surely will come, or they want to float about and see what good they can do as they discover issues.

Citing other authors in addition to his own information, Savoie asserts that “…partisan advisers have been able to carve out an important role as a source of policy advice and … act as ‘bridges’ between senior public servants and elected politicians,…shaping ‘front-end’ policy instruments through mandate letters and throne speeches.

“…partisan advisers can now attend Cabinet committee meetings in contrast to thirty years ago, when only ministers and career public servants could attend. Since the Mulroney government, chiefs of staff to ministers now occupy positions equal to the assistant deputy minister level.

“The purpose of the change was to check the influence of career public servants.”

There is also the influence of lobbyists. 

All major law firms in Canada have lobbyists on staff, as do all major industry associations. The largest private sector firms and industry associations also retain lobbyists as hired guns – lobbyists that are well connected to prime ministers and their courtiers – to look after their interest in Ottawa. Since the 1980s, all prime ministers have had close ties to some lobbyists. Pierre Trudeau and Bill Lee; Joe Clark and Bill Neville; Brian Mulroney and Frank Moores, the head of a major lobbying firm; Jean Chrétien and Edmond Chiasson, head of another major lobbying firm; Paul Martin and Michael Robinson; Stephen Harper and Ian Brodie; and Justin Trudeau and Sheamus Murph.  The life expectancy of hired guns is often tied to how long the prime minister remains in office.

Savoie says that the constitution now serves to strengthen the power of the Centre.  Any laws inconsistent with the constitution are of “no force or effect.”  The supremacy of Parliament is no more.  The courts have required decreased attention to the needs of regions, in favour of attention to the rights of individuals and groups.  So the civil servants do not rule and are not very capable anyway, the politicians and their advisors rule but only in fear of the Court and the constitution.

Savoie thinks that today’s practice of governing from the Centre is not capable of moving as quickly as regional efforts were, when some cabinet members had extraordinary responsibility for regions of the country.  He asserts that the previous prime minister Stephen Harper and today’s Justin Trudeau both trained people in their PMO, and then made them chiefs of staff in ministerial offices.  Interestingly, the PM, on the advice of the clerk of the PCO, not the cabinet, appoints all deputy ministers, heads of agencies, and heads of Crown corporations.  “…ambitious public servants are well aware of this.” But, technically, the PM then has no direct authority over public servants below those levels. Thus, there are limits to the PM’s formal authority over the civil service, but not necessarily limits to his ability to control through his top appointees.

The Centre’s political people and some subservient senior civil servants are in charge, subject to the constitution and the courts and whatever political winds blow, but power has become too concentrated for good administration.

I am not by experience qualified to evaluate Savoie’s opinions, but because of who he is I pay attention.  So I am glad for the less pessimistic work of Heath.


Heath wants to develop a philosophy of government, a way of understanding what is done and not done which, if stated explicitly, would help those in the public service carry out their duties with some consistency, and with confidence that they are doing the right thing.  This would be the essence of a code of conduct, something which names the values of the organization along with a list of the desired results of its work.

Heath agrees that there is legitimate reason to fear too much power in the administration, but suggests: “Autonomous public administration makes a critical contribution to the success of liberal-democratic societies, and in many ways makes democratic governance possible, by serving as a counterweight and corrective to many of the more dysfunctional tendencies of popular sovereignty.”  This accords well with Savoie’s list of deficiencies in government.

One can’t help but wonder what he means by a “liberal democratic state.”  It is not “…one in which the people or their representatives get together and democratically decide all major questions of public policy, which state officials then go off and implement.”  Rather, a successful, well administered, and responsive one is the result “…of an ongoing internal tension between an essentially technocratic executive branch, an elected legislature that is highly responsive to public opinion, and a judiciary endowed with important supervisory functions.”  Because Heath is trying to develop a philosophy of government, this may be accepted as a good idea, but not necessarily the reality of today.  It would seem to agree with Savoie, but without the pessimism.

Yet he maintains that “Increasingly civil service works out on its own what a good policy would be in a particular domain, drawing on a combination of in-house expertise and consultation, as well as consultation with policy experts in universities, think tanks, and civil society organizations. Often the details of ‘good policy’ are known years in advance of its actual implementation.  Politicians, then, act as brokers between this policy community and the general public.”  I am not in a position to test this last assertion, but there are public servants who read this blog and I hope that they will comment (N.B. I can keep your replies confidential and not post them).  I will note that I have talked with public servants in one ministry who have recounted to me a process which took several years to develop.  They forecast that the public would hear about it within two years.  That actually came to pass as the process was announced and rolled out.

Heath goes on to theorize: “The ideal arrangement…is one in which an experienced cadre of public officials, enjoying the substantial security of tenure, advances an independent conception of the public interest, but in a way that avoids taking positions on issues that are the legitimate objects of political contestation and disagreement, and is thus appropriately deferential to the will of elected officials.” Again, good theory. 

On the other hand, Heath is not sure that cabinet ministers can seriously claim to bring to bear what the public wants.  Ministers’ claims to represent the will of the peoples is questionable, because campaigns frequently emphasize personality over policy.  Herle’s comment above is apropos as well.  Another reason is that a minister serving in a minority government will not necessarily be able to create the most desired policy, but rather will have to compromise with one or more other parties in Parliament.   

Heath identifies non-partisan values which can and should guide the public service.

One set of values relates to “political legitimacy.”  There are two types.  Input legitimacy relates primarily to the means by which decisions are made democratically. Output legitimacy is government’s ability to actually solve collective action problems (citing Fritz W. Sharpe in Disaffected Democracies,  edited by Phar and Robert Putnam).  The public service is obligated to meet public expectations of, for example, public transit, health care, and education.  Their  obligation to the public may be greater than to elected leaders, so long as public service works within approved laws and regulations.  A parallel may be drawn to physicians’ obligations, in that they have them toward their patients but are regulated from within their own discipline.

In solving collective action problems, Heath’s central principle is the Pareto efficiency: “…if it is possible to make some people better off (by their own lights), without making anyone else worse off (again, by their own lights), then one should do so.”  Because individuals seldom can apply this principle on their own, they accept the constraints of the state system in order to get near this level of satisfaction.

Another set of neutral principles in “modern liberalism,” as Heath calls it, arising along with the welfare state, are liberty, efficiency and equality.  He adds “three neutral goods of classical liberalism”:  security, property, and contract.  He discusses these extensively.

In evaluating whether the public service has too much power or leeway, the matter of administrative discretion arises. Heath offers an understanding of the rule of law to avoid this problem: “…even when the exercise of state power does not involve the direct application of a statute, it should still exhibit a law-like quality.  …the rules must apply equally to everyone (including public officials), like cases should be treated alike, decisions should be consistent overtime and between officials, and some structure of accountability should be in place to ensure that actions can be reviewed for conformity to these principles.”

I find in Heath wonderful ways of developing expectations that the public service have the standards (ethics) and desire to govern well within all reasonable rules, which, if applied, would help strengthen the democratic fabric of the country.  He often cites discussions with officials which leave the impression that this is what is happening, They just don’t necessarily identify so explicitly the principles by which they operate.


As a result of these readings, I can see reasons for hope that the public service and the current way of doing politics, may result in a strong democracy overall, even though there are obvious undesirable aspects in each.  Making all this work will require continuing that at which Canadians are usually very good:  talking a lot without seeking an ultimate resolution of our differences.  I may not give informed consent to all the solutions of the day, but I certainly consent to talking with informed people. It works so far, if not as well as might an ideal situation.