Alberta Politics

guest post: evan berger and the politicization of the alberta public service.

Evan Berger Alison Redford
Evan Berger being sworn in as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development on October 12, 2011. Premier Alison Redford in the background. (Photo from @PremierofAlberta on Flickr)

By Jerry MacDonald

As we observe the farce of a defeated former MLA & Agriculture Minister, Evan Berger, being hired by the Deputy Minister of his former department, we must take a long and serious look at the politicization of the Alberta public service caused by over 40 years of one-party rule, and how it poisons the well for any other party that might get elected in future.

It is a tradition of Westminster-style parliamentary government, which is the model in Canada both at the federal and the provincial level, that the professional public service can and does support policy developed by an government of any political stripe, from right-wing to centrist to left-wing, with equanimity and professionalism. The result of this is that a change of government in this country does not trigger the kind of wholesale purging of senior government posts that we see in Washington every time a new Administration takes office. There is a reason a new President needs two full months of “transition” before taking office, whereas in Canada a new Prime Minister or provincial Premier is usually in place a week or two after an election.

However, in Alberta, the Progressive Conservative Party and the public service are so intertwined, like mating octopi, that if the current government is ever defeated at the polls, we will need a US-style purge of the entire upper levels of the public services. Every Deputy Minister, Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) and direct report to ADMs will need to be fired & replaced, or the new government will inevitably be undermined by the public service’s senior management.


Jerry MacDonald has been a Registered Nurse for 25 years and was educated in Halifax. Moved to Fort Vermilion, Alberta in 1985, and to Grande Prairie in 1988. Former UNA activist and local president at QEII Hospital (2003-2006).NDP candidate in 2004 provincial election (Grande Prairie-Wapiti); also worked on several other campaigns at both provincial and federal levels. Married to Nancy; three adult children. BSc in Nursing, post-RN (U of A 2010).

25 replies on “guest post: evan berger and the politicization of the alberta public service.”

There was similar thought when Harper took control in Ottawa in ’06.

End result: far fewer of the high ranks going than you would think, and lots of cooing news stories from both sides of “we thought it would be hard to work with them, but it is just another day at the office”.

People like to think there is a great conspiracy controlling all the public service (Ministries and Departments) from some mythical Tory back room. It doesn’t exist. The Ministries are set far apart from their Departments – heck, they don’t even have offices in the same buildings!

Thanks, Jerry (and Dave).

And the PCAA asserts there is nothing wrong with this appointment.

I had some hope that Premier Redford would represent a positive change… that we would see a shift towards less partisan, behind-the-scene patronage. My hope is fading fast. These guys don’t seem to get that it that they don’t have a divine right to govern.

This is actually very personal to me. Evan Berger twice called me “a lying bullshitter” in a public forum (Ryley and Rollyview, AB) for arguing against Bill 50 and saying “no cost/benefit analysis had been undertaken” and no proof had ever been given of the need for such a massive programme of electric power transmission lines.

Very disheartening.

The irony of this appointment is that Don Scott the associate minister for accountability, transparency and transformation just kicked off a review of hiring practices involving senior government officials as a result of the Merali Affair. And people wonder why Alberta voters are cynical.

That’s a bit of a stretch.

Yes, the hiring of Evan Berger and also Akash Khokhar at Finance and Treasury Board are not transparent but to say we need to purge all senior bureacrats is a bit much. Many ADMs and their direct reports are not politically engaged and work hard to put forward objective policy papers. Are some DMs and Board Members at ABCs politcally active? Yes. The solution to that is to not permit people in those positions to be party members in the first place since it’s an obvious conflict of interest…

Seems to me firing the government and purging high-level bureaucrats would be an excellent start to repairing a broken system.

Expect more controversy in the coming months related to this. The Redford government is likely to appoint senior policy advisors in all government ministries. This new position will continue the line blurring between political offices and the bureaucracy. The appointees will report to the minister, but be part of the civil service (whom should report to the DM). Much like the appointment of press secretaries, the goal is to ensure that government departments have a higher level of political sensitivity. We all need to watch carefully who is appointed to these positions and how the appointments are made.

Accepting much of the post, I found the suggestion that all ADM’s and even those reporting to them be purged to be a suggestion that would be more damaging than this hiring or likely even the current politicization of the bureaucracy. Frankly, I expect there are many, many senior people in our government that continue to adhere to the Westminster style and provide the best advice regardless of their personal views or the government views. if we want good government, we need to hire the best and we need to continue to support the processes that make it good. Criticizing actions like this that may negatively impact good government is appropriate; spreading that criticism to unfairly slam a broad swath of dedicated Albertans is not necessary or helpfull.

As much as I agree that the Alberta public service and the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party have come to see themselves as having many goals in common – a perception that would also seem to be shared by majority of Alberta voters, more’s the pity – I shudder to think what would happen if Jerry MacDonald’s proposal was enacted and there was a wholesale purge of the senior levels of the civil service after an election.

A period of one or two years of total chaos would ensue, followed by a longer period of gridlock as surviving civil servants in the next administrative level hunkered down and covered up in hopes of salvaging their careers. And who would replace these fired senior civil servants? Why, exactly the same types with exactly the same agendas from other provinces and Ottawa, as the over-credentialed, multilingual pool of Canadians deemed by conventional wisdom to be qualified for these top civil service jobs is small, incestuous and trained at the same elite institutions.

It would be much wiser to fill a few key positions with bright new people, not necessarily with the traditional deputy-ministerial credentials, to give direction and let the rest of them sort themselves out as the professional public servants that, in fact, most of them are. This would result in essentially the same result with significantly less disruption, although the government that implemented such a policy would have to have the courage to actually fire top public servants who resisted its policies.

Changes to and from various NDP and Social Credit-Liberal-Conservative Coalition governments in British Columbia have shown the ability of the top level of the civil service to implement policies put in place by different parties with different philosophies.

The U.S. system – sclerotic, partisan, wealth-dominated and profoundly undemocratic – is no example to Canadians.

What’s interesting about Evan Berger’s appointment is that he is exactly the type of appointment we would see a lot more of if Jerry’s proposals were implemented. Heaven forfend! I do agree with Jonathan Teghtmeyer that the idea of appointing “political advisors” as senior civil servants is troubling, reminiscent of the approach taken by a couple of totalitarian European governments in the 1920s and 1930s. But this is something quite new and does not explain the problems Jerry perceives with the current Alberta public service.

Finally, does Jerry really know anything about how the cephalopod molluscs of the order Octopoda make love? The plural of this beast, by the way, is “octopuses” (English) or “octopodes” (Latin). Either is correct. “Octopi” is not.

An advanced study of the behaviour of octopuses should be mandatory for all would-be advisors to any politician and all ADMs and DMs.

Ha, it’s hilarious to watch David get all huffy and defend the administration while simultaneously bringing up proper Latin names and such.

A good decision by Dave to have this viewpoint out there on the civil service. The sheer amount of people who have been alienated is certainly high. The people who rise to the top of these organizations are not friends of mine. I don’t travel in their circles but certainly equanimity is an important leadership attribute. You can’t just clean house.

If a person is good at the job, why would they hire some swingin dick that knows nothing about agriculture just to make a bunch of anal NDPEERS happy? As far as calling some whiner a bullshitter, well if these bills were so bad why didn’t little Miss Look at Me vote against them? Oh being called that terrible name is so offensive, if the shoe fits, all you banjo pickers traipsed around Alberta following that pied piper lawyer never cleaning up behind him with a pooper scooper, but believing every slanted word from him, well boo hoo get over it. As if we don’t need more power lines, only an idiot would see a province go from 1.5 to almost 4 million and think we don’t need more power transmission. The business of Alberta should always come before some petty name calling. By the way Octopussy was not the favorite Bond movie either Dave, but Octopodes would never had a box office sale.

Wouldn’t it be a simpler solution to implement a “cooling-off” period (1 or 2 years) during which ex-elected politicians would not be eligible to work for the government, especially in portfolios that they helped direct?

If their skills are in such high demand by the civil service, those skills should be transferable to other portfolios that they DIDN’T oversee.

I must come to the defense of that wag of my acquaintance, Mr. Climenhega. The main point of his comments were bang on.

Although Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists the plural of octopus as octopuses, octopi, and octopodes; and the Oxford English Dictionary lists octopuses, octopi, the EOD clearly notes that octopi derives from the misapprehension that octōpus is a second declension Latin noun. The OED further maintains that if the word were native to Latin, it would be third declension octōpēs (plural: octōpedes) after the pattern of pēs (“foot”, plural pedēs).

Fowler’s Modern English Usage states that ‘the only acceptable plural in English is “octopuses”‘, that “octopi” is ‘misconceived’, and however it goes on to refer to “octopodes” as pedantic.

Compact Oxford Dictionary lists only octopuses, although it notes that octopodes is still occasionally used.

And all of this is easily confirmed by reading Wikepedia.

“Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world, can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.” – Michael Scott

In response to some of the comments:
– there already is a “cooling off” period, but it can be waived; that should be changed
– I don’t for a moment want anyone to think that I actually think the American system of wholesale regime change after every election is superior to ours; I merely suggest that the Alberta situation is so uniquely unhealthy that drastic action may be needed if ever we see a change of government in Edmonton
– I accept the grammatical corrections of my betters lol; mating octopuses it is.

You guys have such a narrow focus. The only way public sector nepotism will ever be overcome in Alberta is if there is a genuine split in the PC party. That will only happen if guys in the Cabinet like Dougie Griffiths, Jeff Johnson, Cal Dallas, Doug Horner and Wayne Drysdale realize they are not in a Conservative party anymore and bolt to the WR.

The PC’s self serving definition of ethics aside, Premier Redford has regularly used business management terms of outcomes and measureable indicators in the stern message of doing things right in governance. I call on the Premier to tell us what outcomes and measureable indicators were drafted in justifying the investment the province is making in Mr. Berger, the fired minister of agriculture. I don’t recall Deputy Minister Knapp including this in the hiring explanation.

Dave’ he was fired cause he could not pick his nose and his banjo at the same time, the banjo pickers outnumbered the business people, simple math, I know from your days of screaming audio on QR, math is difficult for liberals, but try to follow along with the class. On another note, has CBC hired you as a janitor yet?

Bart, please explain how, exactly, these contributions of yours constitute reasoned debate..if you can.

Martin, I am with you, I don’t understand why bart feels the need to be so nasty.

I just skip over his comments as I don’t feel they add anything to the conversation.

I don’t believe for 1 second that there are even a handful of senior execs at GOA that would know, let alone understand, what the Westminister style of government is nor how a professional public service should serve. Therefore the whole lot SHOULD be sacked and about a third of the public service too. To get along in the Alberta public service even the rawest recruit at the lowest level must be a political actor. No decisions are ever made that are not wieghed and measured in the calculus of the politics of the day.
That said, Climenhaga has it right; can you imagine the chaous and ultimate anarchy that would result from such a clensing? The last such attempt was under Krazy Kline and Steve West; the province and the public service still suffers from that fiasco.
No, as much as they should be purged, this would amount to cutting off the nose to spite the face. We have to be smarter (good luck with that) and we need a couragous progressive government (ditto) to put in equally smart, couragous and modern professionals individuals at the top and work our way down through the ranks. How deluded is that?

There is a cooling off period and it should have been respected. This sets a very bad presedant. Does this mean all defeated MLAs should be rehired into the public service?

It is doubly disturbing because Berger indicated in an interview that he did not know what the job was, just that it was important

Interesting that the ethics commissioner was once a CEO of capital health – the outstanding example of ethics ( I am being sarcastic )

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