Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

No more ‘gift’ appointments: A rare interview with Canada’s top bureaucrat

Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council, sits in his office in Ottawa on Feb. 3, 2016.

Handout

Michael Wernick, recently installed as the new Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister's most senior adviser from the public service, has been given an important assignment by the man who appointed him: to advise on how to make a wide range of cabinet appointments – including that of his own future replacement – subject to more scrutiny.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail in his Langevin Block office, the career bureaucrat and head of the public service said the hundreds of political appointments at Crown corporations, tribunals and other agencies are "gifts" handed out by cabinet that should be subject to a more thorough hiring process.

That will mean opening up political appointments, including part-time positions, to more applicants, using more rigorous head-hunting, and setting clearer selection criteria. The goal is to increase accountability, ensure better representation and recruit higher quality talent for appointments to Canada's public institutions, a reform of mainly patronage jobs that would be in line with the Liberal plan for merit-based appointments to the Senate.

Story continues below advertisement

"[Mr. Trudeau] wants to work his way around the appointment powers of the prime minister and put some process, some rigour, some inclusion and some transparency in front of those appointments before he makes them. I completely support that as a matter of good governance," Mr. Wernick said. "You will see in the coming weeks a more rigorous process around Governor-in-Council appointments, like all of the 1,500 appointments or so that are the gift of cabinet to give."

Following their rise to power, the Liberals called on dozens of government appointees to voluntarily resign after the former Conservative government had named or extended the terms for nearly 50 positions in advance of last year's election campaign, with some renewals made months in advance of their terms expiring.

Less than two weeks into the job, Mr. Wernick eased in his chair in his spacious third-floor office, a floor above the Prime Minister's Office and across the street from Parliament. When the PMO announced his appointment as Clerk last month from Davos, where Mr. Trudeau was attending the World Economic Forum, the wording of the news release made it unclear how long he was sticking around. But Mr. Wernick said his appointment is no more temporary than the clerks who came before him.

"I understand where the confusion comes from. Maybe the drafting [of the announcement] could have been better," Mr. Wernick said. "I serve at the Prime Minister's pleasure, not mine. That's the deal. That's the tenure, that's the arrangement. I'll be there as long as the Prime Minister wants me to or as long as I'm physically capable of doing the job. That's the same bargain all clerks have had."

Mr. Wernick, 58, replaced Janice Charette as Clerk only 15 months after she was appointed by then-prime-minister Stephen Harper. Considered strong in both strategic policy and public sector management, Mr. Wernick was Ms. Charette's deputy clerk in PCO, making him a natural successor.

But the move was unexpected after Ms. Charette accompanied Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for briefings on his first foreign trip to G20 and APEC meetings. Observers anticipated Ms. Charette would stay on to see through the Liberals' first budget. She is now likely to receive a diplomatic posting to round out her career before retirement.

Mr. Wernick declined to shed light on the Prime Minister's change in clerks, other than to say it was a "difficult situation" for himself and Ms. Charette, who he's known since the mid-1980s and who is a good personal friend. "The best experience in my professional life was serving in the last year and a half as her deputy clerk," he said.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Wernick has had a 35-year career in the public service, starting in the Finance Department and moving up to associate deputy minister at Canadian Heritage. He later moved into a challenging, eight-year stint as deputy minister of Aboriginal Affairs (now Indigenous Affairs), where he dealt with key developments from Mr. Harper's appointment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the Idle No More protests.

His work as a deputy minister has already been raised in Question Period, when NDP MP Charlie Angus accused Mr. Wernick of resisting action for First Nations child welfare while heading the Aboriginal Affairs Department under Mr. Harper. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett responded that the "primary goal of the public service in our country is loyal implementation" and Mr. Wernick would be following the orders of his new political leaders.

"I'll support the current prime minister and his agenda," Mr. Wernick said. "I have very thick skin after all these years in the business … I think he [Mr. Angus] and the NDP owe public servants an explanation. Is it their view that if the current crop of public servants loyally serves the Trudeau government, that they're going to have a problem with that if they [the NDP] come to power in 2019?"

Without any new process in place for appointments, Mr. Trudeau has already made some patronage appointments for senior positions, including new ambassadors and, in the Privy Council Office, Matthew Mendelsohn to head a new unit called "results and delivery." Mr. Mendelsohn is an academic with the Mowat Centre in Toronto and former Ontario government deputy minister who last year worked on the Trudeau campaign.

Ironically, experts such as Donald Savoie, professor of public administration at Université de Moncton and Canada's authority on the centralization of government, suggest the creation of a new secretariat in the PCO further centralizes power when Mr. Trudeau says he wants the opposite. But Dr. Savoie adds that bringing more transparency to appointments, starting with that of the clerk, would help diffuse PMO power. Transparency could come through a committee that recommends a public list of possible clerks to the Prime Minister who makes the final selection.

Mr. Wernick has two children with his wife, Wiebke Merck, who runs her own business as a career and executive coach. With 35 years of service, he's eligible to retire with a pension, but won't speculate on what's next for him after his time as clerk. He says he agreed to an interview as part of the Liberal government's pledge to be more open and allow senior public servants to speak publicly.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Wernick has identified two priorities as Clerk. One is delivering the Liberal government's agenda, and the second is increasing the capabilities of a public service whose employees are passionate and engaged but also frustrated. Without the latter priority, the first will be more difficult.

"We need to get better at being agile and responsive while still providing that sober advice on implementation. We have too many layers and too much middle management. We have too much process. We have people who take refuge in rules and process, and what we want is people to be guided by their values and competencies," he said. "We have very strong foundations but we're a bit of a fixer-upper… I'm quite optimistic we can get there."

Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.