Statistics Canada: The Administrative Will or the Political Won

Yes Minister once referred to the clash between the political will and the administrative won’t, but in the case of retaining the mandatory long-form census, I think it is more appropriate to reverse the terms.

Chief Statistician Munir Sheik’s resignation on a matter of principle is extraordinary and courageous. I heard him speak once or twice and assumed from his soft-spoken manner and mild demeanour that he would continue to accommodate the government. To his credit, I underestimated him.

The most recent instance I could find of a resignation of a Canadian deputy minister on a matter of principle was in 1979, when Deputy Minister of Finance William Hood resigned because the newly-elected Clark Government wanted to institute income tax deductibility for mortgage payments, something his department, as well as most of the economics profession, saw as an unwarranted subsidy. Clark replaced him with an external appointment, Grant Reuber, a former academic economist then a vice-president at BMO.

To confirm my recollection of the event, I found a reference online to a 1989 article entitled “Governments Come and Go, but What of Senior Civil Servants?” written by Jacques Bourgault and Stephane Dion. In this context, the irony is, to use a favourite Stephen Harper adjective, rich.

One difference between the two events is that Hood was parachuted into a job at the IMF. Given the abrupt circumstances of Sheikh’s resignation and the tone of Industry Minister Tony Clement’s response, he appears to have jumped without a parachute. This is even more to his credit.

The bigger issue is what happens when public servants, on moral or professional grounds, disagree with their political masters’ policies. The story of appeasement in the Thirties in the UK provides one answer: stay in place but leak documents, as quite a few civil servants in the Foreign Office did, thereby enabling then renegade Conservative backbencher Winston Churchill to attack the government publicly. Those public servants in StatsCan who have been leaking thus have a heroic figure to emulate.

The papers tell us that Sheikh has been replaced by Wayne Smith, an assistant chief statistician, on an acting basis. Is Smith prepared do the politicians’ bidding and ignore the professional opinion of his colleagues, not to mention his entire stakeholder community?

The Government has the right to appoint the head of StatsCan, and it could search outside the agency to find someone in business or academe to implement the voluntary long-form census. Maybe it will find such a person amongst Prime Minister Harper’s former academic mentors at the University of Calgary. Tom Flanagan perhaps?

Where this story could be going brings to mind a common situation in the United States, discussed in Rosemary O’Leary’s book The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government. There are a number of agencies, most notably the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor, whose agendas the Republicans don’t endorse, and indeed that the Republican core would prefer to abolish. Republican presidents have appointed agency heads as well as other political appointees who are at war with their career public servants. The career public servants then begin to operate as guerrillas.

This would be a very unfortunate outcome for a public service that operates on an ethic of professionalism and neutrality. Very unCanadian too, but, unless the Harper Government reverses itself on the census long-form, it may be where we are headed.

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