Peter Aucoin’s Yahrtzeit

Our colleague Peter Aucoin passed away on July 7, 2011, almost a year ago. Yahrtzeit is a Yiddish word meaning anniversary (literally, time of year), and Jews are obligated to observe the Yahrtzeit of the deaths of members of their immediate family (parents, siblings, children). Within Judaism, it is a way of ensuring that everyone will be remembered for several years, hopefully a generation, after passing away.

Another way that people are remembered after their passing is through their professional achievements. This certainly appears to be the case for Peter Aucoin, whose accomplishments, at the end of a long and productive career include the Donner Prize-winning book Democratizing the Constitution and the April 2012 article in Governance about the New Public Governance in Westminster Systems.

Aucoin’s article about the New Public Governance (NPG) raised the spectre of politicization of the bureaucracy by first ministers intent on centralizing power in response to 24/7 media, 24/7 political competition, and 24/7 pressure for transparency and accountability. Aucoin made it clear that he regarded NPG as an ideal type present in varying degrees in the four different jurisdictions he discussed (Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand).

The article has the look and feel of being written when the author’s time is running short. Aucoin’s writing was very simple and direct. At the end of his life, he wanted to communicate his message with the utmost clarity and forcefulness. Aucoin also qualified his views much less than is typical of most academic writing. Thus he wrote, “NPG constitutes a corrupt form of politicization to the extent that governments seek to use and misuse, even abuse, the public service in the administration of public resources and the conduct of public business to better secure their partisan advantages over their competitors. At best, this politicization constitutes sleazy governance; at worst, it is a form of political corruption that cannot but undermine impartiality…” (p. 178). Aucoin provided some examples, but his intent was less to provide exhaustive evidence than to develop a conceptual framework that can be tested empirically by other scholars. A clear measure of the fruitfulness and impact of Aucoin’s work would be if his ideal type of NPG stimulates ongoing scholarship.

For example, Aucoin remarked, without elaboration, that “the communication function of government has become the black hole of public service impartiality” (p. 183). There is certainly fertile ground for research on the politicization of the communication function of government. My ongoing research about the use of narrative by politicians, while starting from a very different set of premises than Aucoin’s, is leading me to conclusions similar to his, at least with respect to the Government of Canada.

Let me conclude with a personal note. Peter Aucoin was very explicit with colleagues in the last years of his life that he was fighting cancer. A very important prayer in Judaism is the mishebeirach, a prayer for healing, said in the middle of the Torah service. The rabbi, or leader of the service, asks members of the congregation to name aloud family or friends who are ill, and the congregation prays for their health. (“The One will send him/her, speedily, a complete healing – healing of the soul and healing of all the body – along with all the ill, among the people of Israel and all humankind, soon, speedily, without delay, and let us say: Amen.”) Readers who are interested may Google mishebeirach, and there is a particular moving choral setting by the late Debbie Friedman on YouTube.

We academics are generally secular in our outlook and dealings with one another, yet naming Peter in this prayer seemed to me to be the right thing to do. I emailed Peter and he responded that “it is greatly appreciated from one for whom prayer is central to life.” The last email I received from Peter, three months before he passed away, reported that he was in good spirits, even after seven weeks of chemotherapy and radiation and the exhaustion of treatment options. He again asked for prayer on his behalf, and concluded looking forward to the completion of Democratizing the Constitution.

As we approach Peter’s Yahrtzeit, I think it is important to remember some of the values he embodied towards the end of his life: optimism, prayer, and working as long as he could to communicate his message.


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