Remarks by Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, at the Defence Leadership Symposium


October 25, 2018
Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council

Check against Delivery

Good afternoon.  Thank you for the opportunity to come back. I was glad to do this last year and I see the progress that has been made in so many areas. I do follow the activities of your Department, and of the CAF very closely. These are issues and areas that take up a lot of the Prime Minister's time, and a lot of Cabinet’s time.

The first thing I want to do is—both personally and institutionally—acknowledge and thank all of you for your service to your country. Whether it is in uniform or as a civilian, you play an extremely important role. At hockey games, we sing “we stand on guard for thee.” You actually do it, and I am very grateful for that, both personally and as head of the civilian public service.

My remarks will be brief, I prefer having a discussion with you. While you may seem quiet, I am sure that you will ask me some questions. It is the best way to land on topics that are of interest to you. I will stay until I am told that my time is up.

I will just make a few general comments and observations about some of the people issues that Gord (Venner, Assistant Deputy Minister, Policy, National Defence) referred to. I am certainly happy to shed light on where we are in the cycle of government as we round the three-quarter pole towards a fixed election date next year, and what that may mean for all of us.

I will start with a slightly larger frame, and then we can get more specific. I think those of us who watch the world unfold—and I know that all of you will take great interest in that—would find this a very troubling and somewhat stressful time in world affairs. There is a lot going on, and not all of it is good. We are in a very profound global struggle between different forces. It does not have the clarity of the Cold War, where you could look for red stars on tanks, but it is every bit as deep, profound and important for our children and grandchildren.

I tend to describe this as a struggle between sets of forces—institutions, governments, people—who are basically the forces of closure, of walls, of division, of turning “us against them.” Populism gets entangled with authoritarianism. These forces are running some countries or destabilizing other countries. There are also other forces in the world, which we used to take for granted. They were the ones in the ascendency, around openness, tolerance, diversity, inclusion, free movement of peoples, free trade, free migration, circulation of ideas and open societies.
These struggles are going to play out. They are before our very eyes right now, country by country and election by election.

As a country—and this is not a partisan political statement—Canada is unambiguously in the open camp. Canada is increasingly being called upon to lead the open camp and step into that space. We are a country that stands for our values, and those include being open—open to people, open to trade, open to migration, open to ideas, open to learning, and open to the other and not seeing the other as a threat. Unfortunately, these are lessons that have to be learned again and again, generation after generation, and fought for again and again. Just when you think it has been resolved, it has not been.

I think a lot of the issues that you will see playing out in domestic politics or in global meetings and summits lend themselves to that frame. Military and security alliances are a big part of that, and so are trade agreements.  Institutions matter, the rule of law matters, facts matter, and evidence matters. These are not certainties anymore. A lot of what I worry about is in the space of governance and institutions. Many parts of our democratic system is run by conventions; it is not written down. When those conventions are broken, they are very difficult to put back together. I worry about that.

The other issues I often think about concern what Gord was alluding to. We are in a world where the pace of change and the technological disruption is rapidly occurring —you can do an environmental scan and I am sure you have talked about all of these things—the introduction of digital technologies is nothing new. But the introduction of artificial intelligence into all kinds of things is profoundly different. There are all kinds of other trends that I could talk about. If you are looking for some nice Christmas reading, I recommend Yuval Harari's books to you. I consider the last one, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, a must-read for people who are interested in where the world is headed. It is, ultimately, an optimistic book about human progress. It is not going to depress you and ruin your Christmas. It is actually about how human ingenuity and values have solved big problems in the past, and how we can solve the problems that we are facing today.

The cliché is “We are only as good as our people”—how we put them together and the work environments that we create. The sense of inclusion is very much part of the conversations that I take part in these days. By that, I do not mean the sort of conversations about diversity that we had in the 1990s. Nor do I mean that we should declare victory or get complacent. I am not talking about counting the number of women in the room or the representation of visible minorities, Indigenous peoples or persons with disabilities. Those all matter in terms of reflecting the country we serve. We are also now having conversations about inclusion of voice, talent, perspective and ideas. We have big challenges thrown at us by the government and people of Canada. We need every idea, and every perspective to come up with solutions, whether they involve policy, regulation, service or programs.

It is not easy for us in the civilian public service. We are comfortable with hierarchy and we are comfortable with process. A lot of what the senior leadership is trying to do is hack the processes, get rid of impediments and barriers, and up the operational pace, so that you can get decisions and responses more quickly. However, do not throw away the important parts of due diligence. It matters how taxpayers' dollars are spent and what results and value you are getting for the money.

The consent of the governed is very much driven by the government delivering services and programs that respond to their needs, giving them a sense of voice, and ensuring that they are being heard. This goes back to my first point and the forces of division and closure. They thrive in environments where people feel marginalized, shut out and shunned; that systems are against them and their children; that they have no stake in the game; and that institutions are there for the benefit of other people. Thus, inclusion is an important thing. This is not a “nice-to-have”—it is a “must-have” in democratic governance.

We end up trying to figure out how to do that in the civilian public service, and it is not easy. It is an ongoing challenge to get people out of their comfort zones, to change the way we think, the way we learn and the way we take decisions. I can only imagine this challenge in a service that is built, out of necessity, on command and control and hierarchy. You need to know that orders will be followed, and quickly. To bring inclusion into the conversations around this room is a challenge. I am therefore happy to do anything we can to share practices and ideas with each other—from the civilian public service to the military.

A lot of the topics that you have identified for this symposium did not spontaneously pop out of thin air or out of our own environment. We are embedded in a country—in a society—that goes through evolution and changes the way it thinks about and addresses all kinds of issues. Sometimes it goes forward, sometimes back, and sometimes it zigzags. But we—and I am talking about my public service, made up of 260,000 men and women—are the largest institution in the country. The public service is the largest employer in the country, and the largest workforce in the country. It is made of people, not algorithms. We have to be caught up in these societal conversations and ask ourselves what we are going to do for our people, and what we are going to do in our environment.

We were part of a conversation about gender equality in the eighties, part of a conversation about the linguistic duality of the country, and part of a major shift in the ways that the country thinks about LGBTQ issues, people, and inclusion. You will recall that a year ago, we apologized for the way the Canadian state—and I know that we shared in this—treated a whole class of Canadians. There is a conversation about Indigenous reconciliation, and where Indigenous Canadians fit into our economic, political, cultural and social life, which I know the Canadian Armed Forces and DND have been wrestling with and making enormous progress. I want to thank you for that.

Mental health is a conversation that started almost 15 years ago, led by people like (former Chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada and former Senator) Michael Kirby and (Mental Health Commission board member) Michael Wilson. They brought this issue out of the shadows and out of the stigma, making it an issue that we will talk about and try to deal with. One in five Canadians deals with mental health issues in their family. Somewhere in this room, somebody is either struggling or some family member is struggling. I count myself among them. Mental health issues have a particular meaning in terms of PTSD and military service, but there are other aspects to the mental health conversation.

We are going to try to deal with climate change as perhaps the most pressing challenge of our century, and probably the number one security challenge. Then how do we green our own operations?

We get shaped by forces. The most recent one, which crystallized, strangely enough, in the entertainment industry, was harassment, specifically sexual harassment and sexual violence. The “MeToo” movement is knocking over leaders all over the world. We are not immune to that in Canada or in the public service. We have spent a lot of time thinking about harassment issues and how to create a respectful, safe workplace for everybody. I know that you have as well, and that the Chief of Defence Staff has shown great leadership in this area. This conversation is far from over. Time is up.

My second set of observations is that we are part of a country that is moving. We moved last week on the issue of cannabis. For a workforce and an employer, that is a big societal shift. I doubt we are going back. Not a single political party has said that they will recriminalize it after the next election. We have to come to terms with what it means to us as a workplace and as an employer.

Those are some of the things that I wanted to touch on.

I recognize a lot of work and progress. I think there are other things to discuss.

You are well into the implementation of a major policy reset. There are certainly major procurement and acquisition decisions working their way through the government decision-making process. I will just stop and say that from my point of view, I see the vanishing point next year. We are now in the fourth year of a four-year mandate. The government will run out of time to take decisions at the end of June.

There are fewer than one hundred days left of parliamentary time. We are past the point of no return, where we can table a bill and be sure it will pass by next June. The ministers have aspirations and are saying: “one more thing; can we just do this piece.” We also have only one more budget. Again, this is it. There are only so many resources to go around, and where would they be allocated in the last budget before an election? That is going to be an interesting exercise. Even Cabinet time and Treasury Board time are now finite.

However, while all of this is happening, the world will not stop. Syria and Iraq are still there. Latvia is still there. All kinds of challenges exist around the world. Canada is a significant partner in alliances, and the world will continue to turn. We will have to navigate our way through a fairly long period where ministers are not around much. It will be challenging to look for decisions. We will be operating by conventions, and I referred to those earlier. Governments do not take major decisions during an election period that would fetter the government that follows, even if they think that they will be that government.

There are some things that we will have to navigate through in 2019. I know that, barring some crisis, voting day is next October 21, 2019, and we will very quickly put together, with whomever the people of Canada have elected, a functional and decisional government. In 2015, we went from one functional government of a blue stripe to a fully functional government of a red stripe in 16 calendar days. There is no one else in the world who can do that better than us. We are that good, and we will do it again next year.

It is a year in which there will be a lot of opportunity to question assumptions and think about medium-term issues, and what you would do in another four-year mandate, looking forward five and ten years. It is actually a very exciting time for people who work in the space of thinking about the future and about options that the next Cabinet and the next Parliament will need. The policy people will be very happy, but very tired, next year. Meanwhile, all of the operational and service parts of government carry on and serve Canadians quietly as we try to adapt to the challenges of being a government in the 21st century.

I will stop there.

What we talked about today are some of my favourite themes. There are about 40 speeches on my own website, if you have insomnia one evening and want to peruse them. I report to the Prime Minister formally every year and will do so again in March. I see my role in part, as Gord mentioned in the introduction, as channelling your stories. I make a lot of effort to tell the stories of the extraordinary work that Canadian men and women do every day. The ones you read about are usually about where something would have, could have, or should have been done better.

We have feedback loops of media, opposition critics, stakeholders and Officers of Parliament. I am actually comfortable with that because that feedback loop means we are never complacent. It is one of the things that make us better, and it is one of the reasons why we are rated the most effective public service in the world. We are humble and not complacent. We learn from what goes wrong, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try to do better for Canadians. I know that these are your values as well, and we will get through the next year.

Again, I want to thank you for your service individually and as two great institutions fused together. It is a unique model in many ways and has served Canadians extremely well.

If you have questions or feedback—things you think I should know, things you think I should tell the Prime Minister tomorrow—I know you had a chance to engage with your own minister and with your deputies yesterday and with the Chief of Defence Staff, but I am happy to take your questions and feedback.

Pictures of the event are available on-line.

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