In The Media

Public servants shed cloak of impartiality – at least for the day

by Lee Berthiaume and Kathryn May (feat. Daryl Copeland)

Ottawa Citizen
November 7, 2015

Federal public servants heckled a journalist and cheered loudly during a press conference at Foreign Affairs headquarters Friday, then bombarded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with hugs and displays of affection.

Meanwhile, the largest federal union representing scientists and other professionals in the public service patted itself on the back for its “big win” in helping defeat Stephen Harper.

Some say bureaucrats and federal unions are simply relieved after a decade of the Conservatives, whose relationship with the civil service was strained at best. But the incidents Friday have nonetheless prompted fresh questions about Canada’s tradition of a non-partisan public service.

With hundreds of departmental staff watching, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion held a press conference in the lobby of the Lester B. Pearson building to respond to U.S. President Barack Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

At one point, a reporter asking Dion a question elicited a loud groan from the crowd of employees. The crowd cheered his response.

Foreign affairs officials then mobbed Trudeau as he came forward to greet them. A photo posted by the Prime Minister’s Office on Twitter shows one public servant hugging the prime minister as smiling colleagues wait to meet him.

Trudeau spokesman Cameron Ahmad said government officials “obviously don’t encourage heckling of journalists during press conferences.” Asked about the public servants’ emotional reaction to Trudeau, he said, “We made it clear throughout the election campaign that we want to work collaboratively with the public service.”

Retired ambassador Ferry de Kerckhove, now a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa, said the previous government largely ignored advice from the Foreign Affairs department. He said since the election, officials have been “literally beaming because they felt they were going to be useful again.”

“There’s no question that the victory of the Liberals (is) giving the department a second lease on life,” he said of the warm response for Trudeau. “And if (NDP leader Tom) Mulcair had won, it would probably be the same type of reaction.”

Retired diplomat Daryl Copeland, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, agreed that the public service “has taken a terrible beating” under the Conservatives. But he said the crowd’s heckling and cheering was unacceptable. “It was in poor taste and unfortunately provides grist to the mill for those who believe the public service has an agenda.”

Also providing grist was the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, who on Friday said the union was so pleased at the success of its campaign to help defeat the Conservatives that it will continue with “activism.” PIPSC wants to make sure the Liberals deliver on their election promises to restore a “culture of respect” in the public service.

“Remember that feeling of relief you felt on Oct. 20?” PIPSC president Debi Daviau told delegates at the union’s annual meeting. “When it comes to victories it doesn’t get much better than what we achieved on Oct. 19.”

Donald Savoie, a public administration expert at the University of Moncton, said public servants are gripped by “the euphoria” of working for a government that promises renewed respect.

He said many hope they are returning to their “days in the sun” when public servants worked on policy and were listened to. He likened it to when Pope John XXIII opened the Vatican and liberalized the Catholic Church.

As a result, bureaucrats’ heckling and cheering, and unions revelling in their political campaigns, may not be appropriate but isn’t unexpected.

“Don’t try to make sense of this. School’s out and people are beside themselves with joy,” Savoie said. “Stay tuned, it’s too fresh. Wait until things calm down in a few months.

“I wouldn’t get too worked up because what happened today doesn’t define the public service and its non-partisanship.”

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