Tom Mulcair's NDP seeks advice on preparing to govern after election

Emissaries of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair have been quietly seeking the advice of former senior bureaucrats on how best to manage the transition from the opposition benches into government, suggesting the party is taking more seriously than ever before the possibility it could win the election Oct. 19.

New Democrat transition team looks to former senior civil servants for help

Emissaries of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair have been quietly seeking the advice of former senior bureaucrats on how to manage a transition from opposition to government should the party's lead in the polls hold through election day. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Emissaries of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair have been quietly seeking the advice of former senior federal bureaucrats on how best to manage the transition from the opposition benches to government, suggesting the party is taking more seriously than ever before the possibility it could win the election Oct. 19.

CBC News has learned the informal discussions have included conversations between trusted New Democrats and  former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page and with Alex Himelfarb, once Canada's top bureaucrat as clerk of the Privy Council.

Those consultations started earlier this year and come as the federal public service braces for an election that could be unlike any in recent memory.

Polls are for the first time this summer suggesting a three-way race with the possibility of Mulcair on top and the NDP in government.

It's regular practice for political parties to set up transition teams in advance of an election to plan how to form a government should they win. That was the case in 2011 under late NDP leader Jack Layton. But sources with knowledge of past talks said they were only pro forma, with the NDP more concerned about how the party should respond to the election of a minority Conservative or Liberal government.

But sources told CBC News the recent discussions have had a more serious tone and suggest senior party advisers are planning for the possibility the party will itself form government. The NDP said it has not had contact with officials of the Privy Council Office and would not say who has been acting on transition issues.

Sharing experiences

Himelfarb was secretary to cabinet and clerk of the Privy Council from 2002 to 2006. That dual role placed him atop the federal public service and also made him one of the government's most senior advisers. Himelfarb would not be interviewed about his discussions with NDP staffers, but CBC News has learned they were preliminary.

Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page has been approached for advice. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Page, the former parliamentary budget officer, also had a career in the public service and was himself an assistant secretary to cabinet inside the Privy Council Office.

Page said he has been consulted by other parties and considers it good practice. The NDP, he said, is being responsible.

"They reached out to me in the context of somebody who had worked as a public servant for many years, including in central agencies like the Privy Council Office," Page said in an interview. "It's really about sharing experiences: What to expect, what works and what works less well."

Page said he was in the Privy Council Office during past transitions and saw first hand how Stephen Harper's first Conservative government was able to move forward on most of its major platform commitments in the first two years in office.

"You want governments to start off well," Page said, "and I think if they are not ready for it, time will quickly elapse, and they will not be able to move forward on their initiatives.

"But whoever takes power, assuming there's an election in October, there's going to be a lot to do before Christmas and before the snow melts in 2016."

Huge challenge

David Zussman literally wrote the book on Canadian political transitions and is widely consulted, both federally and provincially.

Zussman said he too has had conversations and said it's essential work.

"It absolutely makes sense and it's totally appropriate for people to be talking to them and for them to be asking," he said. He pointed to recent challenges in Alberta and in Quebec, where the winning parties were not prepared for their own victories, and, but for the existence of a professional public service, surely would have faltered.

Zussman said transition planning is not just happening in political backrooms. The public service itself is also contemplating the impact of a new order.

That effort, he said, would be led by the current top bureaucrat Janice Charette, and would involve the deputy ministers of most government departments.

If the NDP wins the federal election this year, one of leader Tom Mulcair's challenges could be overcoming a lack of experience in his caucus. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"The public service has to prepare itself to receive a new government," Zussman said. "It's a huge challenge for the public service to prepare for any eventuality, and in the forthcoming election we could have some very interesting outcomes and some really interesting complications."

There are also complications for the parties. They range from the challenging work of cabinet-making to selecting priorities to implement. There's also preparation to deal with the seemingly never-ending stream of events that can easily conspire to throw a government off course.

In the case of the NDP, the task of governing would be made more difficult by the lack of bench strength in its caucus. Only a handful of current MPs have any experience inside the cabinet of a provincial government. There is more depth in the back rooms, but many experienced staff are already busy provincially, including in the new NDP government of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

Zussman said all parties ought to be spending time planning how to overcome those issues.

"A lot of people forget the election is a bitterly fought exercise and at the end of the 35-days experience, in the cases of transitions, you have won, but you are exhausted and exhilarated and you are about to enter a world that you probably have very little knowledge of."


James Cudmore covered politics and military affairs for CBC News until Jan. 8, 2016.


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