In the history of Canadian government, few jobs have been as under-publicized as the Clerk of the Privy Council, soon to be filled by the recently appointed John Hannaford, a senior civil servant and former diplomat. While most Canadians will have a hard time describing his new job, Mr. Hannaford should not be underestimated.
“Aside from the prime minister, the clerk of the Privy Council is the most powerful person in Ottawa,” said Donald J. Savoie, a professor at the University of Moncton who studies public administration. “So if a new clerk is appointed, it matters.”
When mr. Hannaford officially takes over on June 24, he, along with deputy ministers under each cabinet minister, will become the gatekeeper responsible for turning politicians’ policy ideas into action.
The clerk manages the secretaries of state and has three tasks that sometimes overlap. He is the head of the public service, which consists of impartial bureaucrats who keep their jobs as politicians and political parties come and go.
The Registrar also manages and coordinates the Cabinet as Secretary, and perhaps most importantly, is the Prime Minister’s top adviser.
Professor Savoie said the clerk and prime minister meet several times a week and each has separate agendas.
“A lot of important decisions are made in those meetings,” he said, adding that those sessions are often more important than cabinet meetings. A cabinet minister, Professor Savoie said, once told him that the cabinet had long ago become a “focus group for the Prime Minister”.
The trend of concentrating power in the hands of the prime minister, and by extension the clerk, has been going on for decades under both Liberal and Conservative governments. And Professor Savoie said it’s not necessarily a power grab.
The federal government increasingly grapples with issues, such as climate change, involving several ministers, departments and agencies, and the role of the clerk is to coordinate that work.
Part of this arrangement is that the Registrar and the officials under his command remain out of sight of the public. The government was unable to provide me with a high resolution photograph of Mr Hannaford, and the Privy Council Office said he was not available for an interview.
The thinking behind that deliberate obscurity is based on the idea that the public service is there to support the government of the day, regardless of its political taste, and so it leaves politicians to be the public face of government.
But several laws actually strip cabinet ministers of decision-making powers and place them in the hands of civil servants. The result, Professor Savoie said, is often situations like the recent backlogs in passport offices, as politicians have had to take the blame for decisions they were not involved in or even consulted about.
Luc Juillet, a professor of public administration at the University of Ottawa, said politicians tend to focus on new policies and programs rather than the less glamorous task of making sure the government apparatus runs smoothly.
“It’s not necessarily the kind of thing that drives most politicians,” he said.
Mr Hannaford has an impressive resume as a policy maker. A lawyer and diplomat who began his career at what was then called the State Department, he has been a key player in trade negotiations, including the recent renegotiation of NAFTA; has worked on climate issues, most recently at Natural Resources Canada; and was once foreign and defense policy advisor to Mr. Trudeau.
But beyond that, Professor Juillet noted, is not extensive experience in government operations.
For Professor Savoie, the appointment of someone with Mr. Hannaford’s background in international relations and defense is a signal from Mr. Trudeau of what he now sees as the greatest challenges facing his administration, which is largely international. They include allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian elections, United States trade policies, global climate change and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The new international order is full of pitfalls and the prime minister needs a helping hand,” he said.
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When I went to Alberta a few weeks ago to report on this week’s provincial election, I found some lifelong Conservative voters put off by Prime Minister Danielle Smith’s anti-vaccine stance and her libertarian agenda and sometimes inflammatory rhetoric . Mrs Smith’s United Conservative Party government returned to power, but with significantly fewer seats in the legislature.
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In the ongoing evolution of Canadian anti-smoking warnings, individual cigarettes will carry messages on their paper, including “Poison in Every Puff”.
Born in Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for DailyExpertNews for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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