The worst newspaper columnist in Canada – The Writer Who Shall Not Be Named – is not impressed.
Justin Trudeau’s government, which has been governing for 26 days – not even a month! – is doing really badly, sniffs this nameless scribe. How come? “Understaffed Ottawa struggles,” declares the disapproving headline on the resulting opinion column. “As Trudeau travels.”
The horror, the horror. Justin Trudeau – who is representing the country in apparently inconsequential meetings with world leaders, as well as one with Her Majesty – isn’t paying sufficient attention to the biggest problem facing Canada, suggests The Writer Who Shall Not Be Named (TWWSNBN): namely, who will be the acting legislative assistant to the Minister of Small Business and Tourism?
Good God! It’s a veritable constitutional crisis. Just ask TWWSNBN: the scandalous understaffing issue has “cast a surreal haze” over Ottawa. Governance is accordingly moving “at a glacial pace” – and, accordingly, “Ottawa crawls.” Says he: “Settling into any sort of rhythm has been made impossible by Justin Trudeau, his chief-of-staff and others spending much of the time since his swearing-in halfway around the world at international summits.”
Ah, yes, those silly international summits, dealing with piddling issues like climate change, refugees, the international economy and what happened in Paris on Friday the 13th. I mean, who cares, really? Can’t you just see Prime Minister Trudeau, being jarred awake by his frantic spouse during the wee hours at the Commonwealth Conference in Malta?
“Justin, Justin!” says the panicked Sophie Trudeau. “This shocking neglect has gone on long enough! You must finally decide who will be the speechwriter to our nation’s Minister of Sport!”
Anyway, we kid. With the exception of TWWSNBN – who nobody really listens to, anyway – no sensible person is preoccupied with “understaffed Ottawa,” quote unquote. Three reasons.
One, Justin Trudeau is presently the most popular Prime Minister in the history of polling. His honeymoon is without end. And, despite being vexed by assorted challenges – an understandable delay in bringing over 25,000 Syrian refugees, the rote discovery that the fiscal cupboard is bare, a military policy that is out of step with our allies – Trudeau is widely seen as doing quite well.
If being “understaffed” is problematic, no one outside of Ottawa has noticed. In fact, so durable is the Liberal leader’s popularity, he can be forgiven for considering whether understaffed ministerial offices should become a permanent feature of his government.
Two, there is not much that Trudeau can do about the problem (which isn’t a problem at all). The RCMP need time to review the backgrounds of the hundreds of folks who aspire to be exempt staffers. Bankruptcies, mortgages, divorces, stock portfolios, criminal records, family and employment backgrounds: all must be carefully checked by the Mounties before anyone can be offered a permanent staff role – and certainly before they are permitted to eyeball Top Secret cabinet documents.
It’s been less than a month, folks: security and background checks take time. Despite that, Liberals like Brian Clow (Trade), Leslie Church (Heritage), Kirsten Mercer (Justice), John Brodhead (Infrastructure), Richard Maksymetz (Finance), Genevieve Hinse (Health), and Rick Theis (Indigenous Affairs) have been hired to Chief of Staff roles – and, rest assured, all are very impressive people. What needs to be done is getting done.
Thirdly and finally, there is another group of professionals who are ensuring that “understaffed Ottawa” functions quite well, thank you very much: the public service of Canada, all 257,138 of them. During the interminable national election campaign, the public service ensured that the metaphorical trains ran on time, didn’t they? And, until ministerial offices are staffed-up, the bureaucracy will continue to perform the same sort of role. It was always thus: for Chretien, for Mulroney, for Harper.
Trudeau’s government – unlike the aforementioned Harper government – does not carry with it a genetic antipathy towards public servants. The iron rule that characterized the Harper era is no more. Trudeau, like his father, favours delegating what needs to be delegated, and rightly so.
When I was a ministerial Chief of Staff in the similarly-inclined Chretien era, I liked to introduce new hires to the public servants who worked in the mail room, and the photocopying room. “Be nice to these people,” I’d say to the new hires. “They are the public service. They were here long before you arrived, and they will be here long after you are gone. They have real power, not us.”
So, fret not, Writer Who Shall Not Be Named. Trudeau – who hasn’t even been on the job for month – is seen as doing rather well by most Canadians. The RCMP are moving as quickly as they can, in an era when security obviously should not be rushed. And – when all else fails – Canada’s public service, widely-regarded as the finest in the world, are still there to pick up the slack.
Life will go on, even in Ottawa.
(And, soon enough, a breathless nation will finally learn who will be the legislative assistant to the Minister of Small Business and Tourism.)