Canada’s former top bureaucrat says price of public life ‘going up’

OTTAWA — The country’s former Clerk of the Privy Council says the last several years have shown that the price of entering into the political ring is “going up.”

Michael Wernick, who made headlines during the SNC-Lavalin controversy in part for explosive testimony about the vile state of political discourse in Canada, said that while he is no longer privy to internal threats against politicians, public discourse suggests it’s only gotten worse.

“It’s not unique to Canada, it’s happened in the U.K., Germany and France – it’s simply a feature of modern politics. The question is not whether we have that virus of polarization, it’s do we have the antibodies to do something about it,” he said during an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play on Tuesday.

“As we continue to have elections, we’ve had eight in the last 21 years, I would be worried that it’s going to be harder to attract good people to come and serve the country.”

Wernick has penned a new book titled Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics, a guidebook for cabinet ministers and prime ministers.

“The thrust of the 200-page book is about how cabinet government works in this country. We have a unique Canadian model,” he said.

Wernick added that he hopes to shed light on what exactly prime ministers and ministers do on a day-to-day basis, having intimately witnessed cabinet dealings.

The former civil servant resigned from his post in 2019, citing “recent events” that led him to conclude that he would not be able to serve as the Privy Council clerk during the next election campaign.

In the open letter to the prime minister, he said there “is no path for me to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the leaders of the Opposition parties,” after both the Conservatives and New Democrats called for his resignation because of his role in the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould had named Wernick as one of the senior officials who she alleges was involved in a “sustained effort” to pressure her in the case of SNC-Lavalin.

In an appearance before the House justice committee on the matter, Wernick veered off course, stating his fears about the then-upcoming election.

“I worry about the rising tides of incitements to violence, when people use terms like treason and traitor in open discourse. Those are the words that lead to assassination. I’m worried that somebody is going to be shot in this country this year, during the federal campaign,” he said in his opening statement.

Asked on Tuesday what is most misunderstood about the caricatures inside the bureaucracy, Wernick said there’s a “dynamic” relationship between ministers and senior public servants.

“There’s a tendency to see the public service as some kind of independent cadre…the public service is there to help an elected government with a democratic mandate to deliver and implement the things that it has the mandate to do,” he said.

“A lot of the conversations are not about whether to, I don’t know, legalize cannabis or bring in carbon pricing or raise the GST, they’re about how to get there.”

With files from CTV News’ Rachel Aiello

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