There's a bargain politicians and Alberta public servants make. Danielle Smith will blow it up

The UCP leadership hopeful's brand of politics not only defies these norms, but threatens to bust the bargain altogether. To her own detriment.

UCP leadership hopeful's sovereignty plan would defy norms, repel career officials — and hurt her, too

The Alberta legislature at night. It's surrounded by buildings full of public servants dedicated to fearless advice and loyal implementation, but a leader who rejects her end of the bargain will throw their jobs into turmoil. (CBC News)

This column is an opinion from political scientist Jared Wesley and student Samuel Clark. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Alberta conservatives have long had a tense relationship with public servants. Premiers from Don Getty to Jason Kenney have threatened to cull their ranks, roll back wages and benefits, take over their pensions, and otherwise reduce their influence and standing in Alberta politics.

When do attacks on the public sector go too far? When they break an age-old unwritten rule of Canadian politics: the public service bargain.

The pact between elected officials and bureaucrats ensures governments have the expertise and commitment necessary to fulfil their democratic mandates. Government employees exchange their partisan preferences and public profile for career stability and competitive benefits.

In return, elected government officials receive "fearless advice" and "loyal implementation" from a legion of permanent staff.

Fearless advice provides elected members of government with the full range of options and evidence they require to define and achieve the public good. Loyal implementation requires that public servants park their personal convictions and maintain partisan neutrality when fulfilling government directives. 

That bargain is facing a monumental test in Alberta, where United Conservative Party leadership front-runner Danielle Smith's brand of politics not only defies these norms, but threatens to bust the bargain altogether. To her own detriment.

The values test 

Over the course of her leadership campaign, Smith has threatened to remove a host of government officials for failing to live up to her vision of Alberta's values. 

She has pledged to replace the entire board of Alberta Health Services (AHS), and fire members of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. While these officials stand outside the formal public service, Smith has also committed to hold Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw accountable for the government's public health response to COVID-19 through a public "investigation." This comes despite the fact that the minister of health and cabinet are decision-makers in our system, not bureaucrats like Hinshaw and those in AHS or the College. 

Smith's bargain-busting has not been confined to health officials. She has boosted a conspiracy narrative started by Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe that demonizes environmental enforcement officers, alleging that the federal government is hiring "climate cops" to "trespass" on Western farmland. 

Danielle Smith answers a question at the UCP leadership debate in August. (Manuel Carrillos Avalos/CBC)

Smith is not alone in her indifference toward the public service bargain. During a debate on Aug. 25, various UCP leadership contenders promised to politicize several fields normally kept at arm's length from interference — academia, the police, the judiciary, prosecutions, pensions, tax collection, immigration, and sport. 

And Smith's proposed pandemic inquiry echoes similar threats from new Conservative Party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre, to fire the Bank of Canada governor and other "gatekeepers". 

Yet, Smith's forcefulness and proximity to power make her threats most pressing.

Risks of busting the bargain

Smith frames her attacks as forcing public servants to do what's right for Alberta. At a leadership debate organized by the separatist group Alberta Prosperity Project, she announced she was "putting our civil service on notice, all 240,000 of them, that every single decision they make must be put through the lens of putting Alberta first." In reality, she is making it less likely they will hold up their half of the public service bargain. 

Under Smith, the public service is less likely to provide fearless advice to elected officials. Knowing that their briefing materials could land them in the limelight or see them summarily dismissed changes the sort of advice public servants are willing to put on paper. 

Fine, say her supporters. Bureaucrats who don't toe Smith's line are free to find work elsewhere. This is true, and many have been doing so since the UCP first took office. 

If the trend accelerates, however, those with the talent and dedication to tell truth to power will be outnumbered at all levels by those with less motivation to offer frank solutions to the many complex challenges facing our province in the years ahead. 

Dr. Deena Hinshaw is taking off a mask as she prepares to speak at a lectern during a news conference.
Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. Danielle Smith's UCP leadership campaign has taken aim at Hinshaw and several other health officials. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The public service may be less likely to provide Smith with loyal implementation, as well. While openly disregarding or thwarting a government's agenda is clearly beyond the pale, public servants are within ethical bounds to question directives if they contravene the law, sidestep the Constitution, or put lives at risk. 

Several of Smith's proposals — including the Alberta Sovereignty Act, which forbids provincial officials from enforcing some federal laws, and elimination of vaccination requirements — will prompt such deep reflection among members of the public service. If enacted, these measures would force public servants to choose between abiding by the Constitution and protecting public health, on one hand, and keeping their jobs, on the other. 

None of this is to say public servants should break their part of the bargain. Open defiance of ministerial directives or leaks to the press are blatantly unacceptable in a functioning democracy, particularly when the directives are lawful and solid internal whistleblowing protections exist. 

If one side reneges on their part of the public service bargain, however, breaches on the other side become more likely. 

No stranger to conspiracies, Smith might well blame any inability to implement her agenda on nefarious, "deep state" actors. This could be a pretext to cull the nonpartisan public service, as was proposed by former U.K. prime minister, Boris Johnson.

In the meantime, as columnist Max Fawcett wrote about Poilievre, Smith may find that she has little use for public servants until she does.

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Jared Wesley and Samuel Clark

Freelance contributors

Jared Wesley is a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, studying the relationships between political culture, public opinion, and public policy. He worked for six years in the provincial executive council, advising both Progressive Conservative and NDP premiers. Samuel Clark is an undergraduate student studying geography at Durham University in England. His research explores the significance of familial expectations and cultural norms in determining the political allegiances, voting behaviour, and employment ambitions of young adults.