Settling Accounts

A former civil servant’s memoir highlights intrigue and betrayal in Ottawa.

It has become too easy to dismiss the most florid criticism of Stephen Harper, whose legacy after almost a decade in power will continue to be examined in the coming months and years.

Much like Godwin’s Law, which states that as any online discussion grows the probability of a comparison to the Nazis or to Hitler approaches one, the Harper Derangement Syndrome (HDS for short) has gained a kind of internet slang inevitability. Spend too much time raving about Harper’s evils and, eventually, you will be accused of suffering from it.

The early post-election reviews of the Harper regime have not been positive, but most Conservatives have glossed over the near-frantic opprobrium with a shrug and an eye roll.

This is not to say that Harper’s time in office was impeccable. It has not been. Rather, his worst transgressions seem to most offend wonkish souls; there is no great sin, but a steady accumulation of smallish, hypocritical ones that led to his eventual undoing. This means that while many ordinary voters have an overwhelming sense that the Harper Conservatives are bad news, all but the most diligent observers of political minutiae are often hard pressed to explain just why.

Kevin Page gives an explanation.

Depending on whom you ask, Page is either a Canadian hero, a partisan hack or a milquetoast bureaucrat turned rebel who managed to dance over every line of parliamentary propriety during his tumultuous five years as this country’s first parliamentary budget officer. His book, Unaccountable: Truth and Lies on Parliament Hill, ably dissects what happened.

Page is an economist, and he writes like one. Straightforward and unsentimental, his prose is the work of someone who has spent a very long time writing very important analyses for very important people—in other words, a civil servant.

But he is an angry civil servant, and an indiscreet one, and that makes him interesting.

After a long and varied career within the federal civil service ranks, Page was appointed to the unenviable role which made him famous in 2006 under the auspices of Harper’s first minority ­government.

While in opposition, Harper espoused the need for more transparency in Parliament. He championed a parliamentary budget office similar to the Congressional Budget Office in the United States. Such an office could provide politically independent economic data to parliamentarians, which would help them to hold the government to account by giving them access to information free of political finagling.

In the theory of the Westminster parliamentary system, even government members of Parliament are not beholden to the dictates of the prime minister, but are rather representatives of the constituents who elect them; this kind of independent information, then, not only empowers them—it is crucial to what they are sent to Ottawa to do. That is the theory, anyway.

In practice, the office of the prime minister has become a force unto itself. Canadians are often hazy about basic civics; they conveniently forget that they elect MPs rather than prime ministers. This ignorance, along with U.S.-style leadership races that poll the will of party membership rather than caucus, have allowed parties to grow ever more hierarchical.

Our prime minister now has all the power of a president, but with few of the pesky checks that keep his American contemporary comparatively impotent. The PBO, then, was a throwback to this older ideal of a Westminster system, one in which MPs really could confront and even oust their leaders.

Alas, it turned out that the Stephen Harper of opposition was an entirely different creature from the Stephen Harper who found himself at the head of the government.

Although the Conservative leader carried through on his promise to create an independent budget officer, Page contends that the office was doomed from the outset. The government gave it neither the budget nor the autonomy within Parliament to become as effective as the Congressional Budget Office.

The post was pegged as a poisoned chalice. Few senior careerists in the civil service even considered the role, he alleges. Page, however, was a different kind of creature, even though he had spent almost three decades working for various government departments and agencies.

It would be easy, here, to suggest that Page was motivated by a kind of partisan fury. Indeed, a glimmer of affection for the NDP can be inferred from certain passages in his book. But, on the whole, his motivation to captain the ill-fated office seemed much more nuanced and entirely human.

In 2006, Page lost his son, Tyler, to a freak freight train accident. He admits that the bereavement caused his work at the time to suffer. More interestingly, grief seemed to have imbued the mild economist with a kind of damn-the-torpedoes attitude. Instead of fading into a respectable retirement, Page applied for the damned job.

And rather than merely pantomiming the part of a PBO—which would have allowed the government to maintain its promise of an independent officer without facing any inconvenient additional scrutiny—Page, shockingly, decided to actually be a PBO.

This is where all the trouble began.

Page did not shy away from controversial subjects. One of his first projects, estimating the cost of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, stuck a brutally quantifiable pin in a government adventure that had thus far been justified by appeals to honour and duty.

His office tried to post its supplementary materials online. Page’s book is almost slavishly devoted to defending the PBO’s integrity. Transparency, for him, was an opportunity for Canadians to see the underlying data behind his clear-cut analyses. Posting much of this on a website—a notion that should seem instinctive to civil servants at this point—was how he hoped to maintain his sense of honour amid what would inevitably become a series of partisan firestorms.

Opposition to these tactics was not limited to the government in question, but included the civil service that enabled the government and its ministers. He recounts the flak he took from the Library of Parliament and various senate committees, which seemed institutionally incapable of yielding to the kind of openness and transparency that the last two decades have imposed on the rest of our social orders. The ashen-faced Conservative backbenchers who would see Page as an enemy of the king also receive no succour here.

Page’s economic coup de grâce came in 2011 when he tabled a report alleging the governing Conservatives were not releasing enough data to allow him to fairly tabulate the cost of their tough-on-crime bill, or the pending purchase of the F-35 fighter jets.

He even went so far as to accuse the government of trying to mislead the public about the lifetime costs of the planes.

It was these allegations that would lead to a historic ruling against the government: contempt of Parliament. The Conservatives’ minority government was dissolved. But the electorate returned with a ruling all its own, a majority parliament. Rather than take that vote of confidence in stride, the Conservatives only seemed to intensify the culture of secrecy, centralization and personal vendetta.

In the following year, Page would face the consequences of his dissent. “Unbelievable, unreliable, and incredible,” said finance minister Jim Flaherty, attacking him personally.

“It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be singled out on national television as incompetent, but I had almost grown used to the personal attacks. It was yet another salvo that had nothing to do with the issues or actual economics of the matter at hand,” Page writes.

But to castigate Harper’s government as some kind of anomaly would be folly.

Harper could not have gotten away with the government he created if not for an entrenched culture in Ottawa that has become paranoid, insular and tribal.

Page reserves his most scathing critique not for the government of the day. To take fire from the enemy is one matter, but to be attacked by your own kind leaves the wound that festers. Page’s book offers an important history of the dysfunction of the Harper regime, but his true critique is aimed at a civil service that has been so totally and pathetically cowed by successive Liberal and Conservative governments.

The brilliant British political sitcom “Yes, Minister” is often a better primer on civics than most courses. There is an applicable quote, often attributed to the writer of that series, Antony Jay: “The Opposition aren’t really the opposition. They’re just called the Opposition. But, in fact, they are the opposition in exile. The Civil Service are the opposition in residence.”

If more civil servants were like Kevin Page or Munir Sheikh—the head of Statistics Canada who resigned in protest over the Harper government’s painfully imbecilic decision to cancel the long form census—we would have had a very different decade in Ottawa. With a stronger, more robust civil service, one more willing to pick fights in private, the Conservatives would have been far less able to continue their very public excesses.

Indeed, Page describes a mewling bureaucracy built of a class of careerists fundamentally opposed to the kinds of transparency, openness and reform that are utterly inevitable. It is no wonder he was so unpopular.

It has become very fashionable to think that the problems in Ottawa are the result of one ideology, or one regime. We are happy to forget that the latest such regime—the Harper one—was built on a principled movement that went to the capital with a mandate for reform, only to allow some of the problems they originally battled grow more endemic and entrenched under their tenure.

It has become rote to talk about Harper’s role in muzzling government scientists or clamping down on public bureaucratic dissent, with such talk often by people who do not understand the nuanced relationship between civil servant and elected minister. Instead of seeing these people as victims of a government now overthrown, Page’s book invites us to consider them as failures.

If so, this presents a much more complicated set of problems for the Canadian electorate to address—problems that cannot be fixed merely by the election of a more attractive prime minister who promises, yet again, to repair the rot in the capital created by his predecessor. Page’s assessment is not sunny. He has little hope of reform, but instead looks toward renewal in the capital to gradually come through a turnover in the ranks of the civil service.

After his term ended, Page was replaced with an officer who had neither the talent nor the inclination to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. The PBO has been out of the headlines ever since. Page himself landed a role as the Jean-Luc Pepin Research Chair at the University of Ottawa and seems in no hurry to retire or stay quiet.

In Unaccountable, Page writes that he still hopes for renewal at the hands of a younger cohort of federal bureaucrats. In the meantime, once the afterglow of the Liberals’ historic success begins to dim, I suspect we will yet again be left to contemplate the futility of ideology in a system that concentrates so much power in the hands of so few.

Without a strong, competent and empowered civil service—the caste of people who actually conduct much of the day-to-day running of the government—Harper’s defeat becomes a hollow one. Whether in the next four years, or the four after that, the excesses of the previous government will inevitably be visited upon us once again.