Michael Wernick hold the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management at the University of Ottawa and is also the former Clerk of the Privy Council. He is uniquely suited to comment on the role of the public service during a time of government transition. Canada does transfers of power very well, largely because the permanent public service provides stability while the political government either changes hands or, in the event of a return of the incumbent, recalibrates after an election. In conversation with Lori Turnbull, he delves into this critical issue.

John Jones: Today, we’re going to be talking about the “end times and new times” and the transition period as we head our way to an election. We’re going explore the topic of how governments prepare for these new times.  

Joining us is our special guest Michael Wernick, Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management at the University of Ottawa, as well as Professor Lori Turnbull, Editor in Chief of Canadian Government Executive. Welcome to you both. This is this is a great topic. I’m looking forward today’s conversation. 

Lori Turnbull: Thank you, John, and thank you so much Michael, for joining us. We’re really excited about this. I’m going to start by giving you the floor Michael so you can share all you know about government transitions. We’re not at the transition time yet. It’s March 2024. I don’t think there’s going to be an election until October 2025, but now that I said that I’m sure that I’ll be proven wrong. But we can use that as a possible date. And I think it’s a likely date, given the circumstance with the confidence and supply agreement between the Liberals and New Democrats. There is security for the Liberal government, even though they’re in a minority. My guess is that they are not in a rush to go to election anytime soon. There seems to be enough in this agreement with the NDP to keep them going.  

I never want to jump the gun and make assumptions about how Canadians will vote. But if one reads the polls, it looks like we are probably going to be heading towards some kind of change in government. So, without even presupposing that, I want to get your thoughts, Michael. What does it look like when a government is heading towards an election where they are going to be asking for a fourth term, which governments typically don’t get? What are the possibilities here? What is going through the minds of public servants who are advising and supporting a government that is in the last part of its third term? 

Michael Wernick: Thanks for the invitation. I’ll put in a plug for my book if you don’t mind. On some of this, I think I’ll leave some of the political science to you. There’s an important principle that we only have one government at a time and the main role of the public service in the federal government or any provincial government for that matter, is to deliver the programs and services and provide advice to the government until the next one is sworn in. So, this will play out in more or less three acts.  

Governments behind in the polls with a high probability of defeat creates certain dynamics. And that’s the sort of medium-term transition planning that we can delve into.  

The second act is the actual election period. Obviously campaigns matter and there will be swings in the polls and different senses of who’s going to win. And people will be putting out seats projections and issues around the legitimacy of coalitions.  

And the third act is the pure transition, the handoff of power for one democratically elected group to another. And we do that reasonably well and quickly in Canada, but it will certainly raise a whole bunch of challenges for parts of the public service.  

My second theme would be that for most of the federal public service, this doesn’t really matter. They come in and deliver their programs, services, transactions, regulations and so on. And until a new government has a major change in machinery or policy, they just keep calm and carry on. So, transition really affects a narrow slice.  

Lori Turnbull: It’s such an interesting thing because I think it’s a really important point that the public service is the thing that stays the same.  It’s one of the reasons why Canada is so good at transition, because we have this permanent public service that continues to keep everything going.  

I want to go through this chronology you’ve put forward for us. How does the public service prepare? Because there are some countries where it is normal for some people in the public service to reach out to what could potentially be an incoming government even before the writ is dropped, so that there’s some kind of coordination around what campaign promises could look like. I wonder if you could give us a little bit of that. Is it common for people to talk openly about the possibility that there could be a change in government even before the writ is dropped? 

Michael Wernick: Well, part of the dynamic is the electoral promises. I mean that’s open software and out in the public.  If a government says we’re going to legalize cannabis or bring an end to first past the post elections or repeal the carbon tax, that’s out in the open and it’s straightforward for public servants to think about. It’s not our job to question whether you’re going to do that, but we’re going to engage on costing, legal risks, and international obligations.  

There are all kinds of things that the public service can bring to an early conversation about electoral promises. The other stream is really all the issues and events that will never come up in the election campaign. I remember this conversation about, “You’re going to be elected in late October and guess what? Within a few weeks, you’re off to an international summit and you have to lead the Canadian position on climate change.” So, there are upcoming court cases and international events and other kinds of milestones that you would want to bring to bear and say to a new department minister or Prime Minister. These are other things you’re going to have to focus on and spend some time and energy on. That process of blending election promises and creating a to-do list is how the early days of an agenda gets shaped.  

The other phenomenon is like sands going through the hourglass. You work backwards. How many days of parliamentary time are left and how many days, how many meetings of Cabinet and Treasury Board can you have? And that number is going to start diminishing. So, the ability for this government to deploy new things is diminishing and their ability to finish things they’ve already started is diminishing. And that’s fine. For many political purposes, they will deploy a piece of legislation and say, “Look at this, if you vote for the other guys, it might get taken away.” It’s kind of like leaving the table the way you want it when you call the election. In other cases, it’s important to finish the job and get the bill passed.  

So, I think there are parts of the public service where it will be super busy because they’ve got an active agenda from the current government. They’re also thinking about how this would work out with different scenarios. There could be a blue majority. There could be a minority government, there are coalition possibilities, and given the swings that happen in election, you have to be agile and think about a variety of scenarios. 

Lori Turnbull: For sure. Because I get worried sometimes that we put so much emphasis on polls. It’s not to in any way detract from their methodological soundness, and it’s not to suggest that they’re not right. But they aren’t a vote. They are a measurement of where the public is at the time and, as you say, campaigns matter a lot. We have a lot of people who don’t switch on at all in terms of paying attention until the campaign, until the two-week mark. Over the past 10, 20 years we had a lot of voter promiscuity and people who didn’t make up their minds sometimes until even the last weekend of the campaign. But it strikes me that we had issues around low turnout in the last Ontario election. Only 43.5% of people who were eligible showed up to vote. Now in that case there were issues around the result looking like a foregone conclusion. People weren’t particularly excited about any of the people on the ballots, and a lot of people didn’t show up for anybody. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily going to happen. I don’t think we’re going to see the same thing at the federal level.  

It strikes me that there will be less voter volatility. There used to be a time where you could imagine a person making a choice between voting Progressive Conservative or Liberal. But now I think the iterations of the Liberals and the Conservatives federally and the polarizing effect of their leaders, is creating a scenario where you get a stark contrast between the two parties.  

In your experience, is there an additional set of challenges if the ideological positioning of the incoming and outgoing government is particularly stark? 

Michael Wernick: I’ll start with a couple of things and then we can come back to this. We are used to watching the Americans fuss about 6 or 7 swing states in the Electoral College, but we’re not that different. 

About 200,000 votes one way or the other would have changed the outcome of the last two elections. In most elections the parties are playing for a very small margin of voters in a very limited set of constituencies. Big majorities are the outliers. In honour of Brian Mulroney, I’d go back to the 1988 election. He called the election for a mandate for free trade. He led in the polls when he called the elections, then they swung towards the Turner Liberals mid-campaign. Then they swung back. You can imagine the convulsions this must have the caused for people in trade and economic policy.  

So, to go back to your question, it’s totally normal and legitimate that governments go back and forth from red to blue and then repeal or change direction. We saw the Martin government build a childcare program that the Harper government reversed and so on. Those are legitimate decisions for voters to make and they will decide which platform they prefer. The fundamental point is that everybody accepts the rules of the game, which is 343 constituency races. What counts is obtaining a majority in the House of Commons. And that brings in issues about coalitions and partnerships. It’s not the party that gets the most votes. It wasn’t in 2021. 

Lori Turnbull: It wasn’t in 2019 either.  

Michael Wernick: It’s the party that wins the most seats. Now, so far in every previous election, all the parties have accepted these key principles. It is first past the post. It is confidence of the House of Commons that decides who wins and people have accepted outcomes where the party that got the most votes overall didn’t get the most seats. The more interesting outcomes are the 1985 Frank Miller election in Ontario and the British Columbia election in 2017. The party that won the most seats couldn’t form a government because there was a workable coalition of other parties. This is commonplace in Europe, as you know, but we haven’t really stressed tested it in Canada. The acceptance of coalition governments, the dynamic that’s going on today in the Netherlands and in Pakistan is about the legitimacy of combinations of parties to form a government. We’ve never really had that debate in Canada. 
Some of your readers will remember the dissolution dispute of 2008, the political accord between the Liberals and other opposition parties to bring down the Harper government, which led to a fight about dissolution of Parliament. But the underlying issue was its legitimacy in the eyes of Canadian voters. For the stability of the country, it would be good if one of the teams wins a clear majority and forms of functional government. But there are scenarios that are not completely impossible.  

Lori Turnbull: We don’t know that there’s going to be a clear result for anybody, and we could be in a circumstance where the Conservatives come first, but they don’t get a majority of seats. 

Michael Wernick: I think for Mr. Poilievre this big lead in the polls cuts both ways. He will be asked by journalists during the campaign if he accepts the basic rules of the game, that whoever commands a majority in the House of Commons is the winner, even if it’s the party that didn’t win the most seats. 

If he starts to question that during the campaign, then we’re in a whole different space, right? And the other problem is he is now and more and more seen as the government in waiting and has to go through almost 15 months as the government in waiting. He’s going to be held to a much higher standard of explaining his policies and his programs. And what is he going to do? It’s easier to surge from behind with some slogans and generalities than to be the frontrunner. I think he will have the problem of Canadians starting to see him as a government in waiting. He’s going to have to manage that as well, just as the incumbent government does. 

Lori Turnbull: I agree. He won’t have the same ability to bob and weave around journalists questions then as he does now, and it will take a whole different tone. 

Michael Wernick: But I would point out, Doug Ford won his first election with a fairly detailed policy program. And he won his second election with almost none. I think the need for detailed policy programs has diminished over time. But Canadians can engage the parties over the next year in terms of, “OK, what are you going to do if we give you the rings of power?”  

I would say there’s a couple of strengths in Canada we shouldn’t forget. We’ve just gone through a major redistribution of federal constituencies. We’ve gone from 338 to 343. Those boundaries were redrawn by independent commissions, and nobody’s challenging the legitimacy of those constituencies. We’re not having an argument about gerrymandering the way they do in most American states, and we’ve never had a case provincially or federally, where anybody has questioned that Elections Canada delivered an accurate count of a free and fair election. The actual electoral process has never been in question and is unlikely to be. Next year, we’ve got an interesting issue about foreign interference and dark money, and whether that’s going to mean in a very, very narrow election that you can tip with 200,000 votes. Then you know foreign interference in dark money will become an issue.  

Lori Turnbull: Yeah. And just thinking about your comments that we don’t have people questioning whether ballots were appropriately counted. We do not have the same thing that happened in the U.S., where people are questioning whether the administration of the election was fair. 

Michael Wernick: What we have had, though, and again triggering memories, is we’ve had a round of discussions about non-citizens voting. There was a wave that you’ll recall well about the Fair Elections Act, which Mr. Poilievre took the leadership on, and it was very much a concern about whether there was a margin of non-citizens voting during Canadian elections. What kind of identification and verification was appropriate? They made a few changes which the Trudeau government then repealed in another Fair Elections Act, and so on. We could have a bit of an argument about non-citizen voting in Canada, especially given the surge in immigration numbers, but I don’t expect that to be a big part of the fabric of the next election. 

Lori Turnbull: I don’t either. But I think you’re absolutely right about the questions that all of the leaders will get questions about whether leader of the party with the most seats should be able to form the government. 

Michael Wernick: But they may not be able to. I’d go back to the BC election, where Christy Clark had the most seats, but couldn’t form a government. The core thing we should ask all the party leaders, whether they agree with it or not, is about the winner being person who can command the confidence of the next House of Commons. 

Lori Turnbull: That’s the rule, and I think that we need to say that as often as possible. In 2015 when it looked like the three parties were very, very close, it wasn’t clear any of them would be leader. Of course, that changed when Trudeau won a huge majority, but for a while it looked like it could also be Mulcair or Harper.  

Peter Mansbridge in his interviews with all the leaders on The National asked them, “Do you believe that the person who is the leader of the party with the most seats should form a government?” That’s not the rule, but they all went along with it. This is potentially very dangerous. We don’t have the same conversation the U.S. is having on the rules of the game and the agreement around that. But we have a different system, and it strikes me that there could be a lot of confusion publicly if the person who wins the party is the leader of the party with the most seats, doesn’t govern because they can’t. 

Michael Wernick: It’s an issue that needs to be discussed during the election campaign, so that we know where people stand. I have noticed that a lot of the polling and seat projection sites in Canada have adopted the models in other countries, posting potential coalition combinations – red plus orange or blue plus purple and so on. I think Canadians will learn a fair bit about the arithmetic of potential combinations. But I think it’s the job of the media and others to draw out our political parties on this. 

Lori Turnbull: And I think that there are constitutional reasons why we would want to normalize various machinations that could lead to someone having the confidence of the House. In 2008, going back to that example, there was nothing wrong constitutionally with two parties saying we’re going to defeat the government on a money bill and then offer a government. And if they can hold the confidence of the House, then that’s it. That’s the rule. 

And it was amazing how little acceptance there was of that and how successful Stephen Harper and the Conservatives were at saying nobody voted for this, and that if you want a coalition to take over, you must go to election to do that, which is wrong. But people believed it. So, I wonder what might happen in the same case this time. I’ve always wondered whether the purpose of the Liberal-NDP confidence and supply agreement, which is not a coalition, is to normalize a shared governance agreement in the event that Poilievre comes first but doesn’t get a majority. 

Michael Wernick: You have to ask the architects of that. I think 2008 was a particular exercise because it brought in the right of the Prime Minister to seek dissolution and the role of the Governor General. It all seemed a bit arcane. To Canadians, this is straightforward. We’ll have an election and there’ll be an outcome election night and then people can look at the arithmetic. So, I do think it’s a little bit more straightforward in terms of managing the outcomes of the of the next federal election or some of the provincial elections that are coming up.  

The supply agreement is similar to the Martin-Layton deal. It’s similar to the BC deal between Premier Horgan and the Green Party. We’ve seen this kind of thing before. It is a long time since we’ve crossed the Rubicon into coalition governments, which means ministers from more than one party. It’s a perfectly workable way of working. The UK has done it so we should be able to make it work, but it’s only going to be necessary in certain political combinations. 

Lori Turnbull: All remains to be seen. Clearly, we need more than one podcast to talk about all this stuff. And so we’re going to have to hope that you are generous with your time to come back and do this again. Thank you so much Michael for sharing your views about this with us. This has been fascinating to listen to you, and let’s do it again. 

Michael Wernick: Thanks for inviting me. I think we can all start our countdown clocks it. It may come sooner, but we know the outer bound, October 20th next year.