Pity the poor country. Just when it needs help most, the man who knows its finances best is walking away, leaving the worst crisis in modern times to a faux-economist prime minister and Conservative operatives.
Kevin Lynch's sudden retirement from the most powerful and prestigious job the federal civil service offers is loaded with troubling implications. It marks a decisive victory for hired party guns over public servants, further concentrates power in Stephen Harper's concentric circle* and maps the route to the next federal election.
All of that and more flows from the curious departure of an accomplished, complex and controversial mandarin little known outside this capital. Announced with the Prime Minister conveniently abroad**, the move ends the no-prisoners struggle between Lynch and Guy Giorno, Harper's corrosive chief of staff, while sending confusing messages to public servants Conservatives badly need to deliver their multi-billion-dollar economic stimulus.
That dysfunctional past and demanding future will test Wayne Wouters, the career bureaucrat replacing Lynch. Well-liked and well-travelled in Ottawa's back corridors, Wouters must satisfy Conservatives obsessing on the coming campaign while reassuring colleagues demoralized by their diminishing policy role and by the increasing intrusion of politics on a civil service that once prided itself on speaking truth to power.
An anecdote connects those forces. It's murmured here that Lynch differs from his predecessors in an important way. They kept their resignation letters ready to deliver if prime ministers crossed the line between cynical politics and national interests. Lynch would more happily deliver deputy ministers' resignation letters if they failed to jump high enough to please his political masters. Apocryphal or mean, the story crystallizes a fundamental change in how Ottawa functions. Once expected to find and hold the fine balance between advising cabinet and protecting the public service, Privy Council clerks are now primarily the prime minister's loyal deputy.
Last November, that realignment surfaced when bureaucrats helped the government deliver an essentially misleading economic update while mixing public policy and political provocation. Months earlier, Lynch tabled a report blaming largely innocent bureaucrats, instead of guilty Conservatives, for leaking a NAFTA memo that badly embarrassed Barack Obama during the Ohio presidential primary.
Those examples leave hanging a disturbing question: What does it take to hold this prime minister's support? Clerks rarely leave the job with a lot of friends. Yet Lynch's premature exit is badly rattling those who worked closely enough with him to know his defining strengths and weaknesses. Reasonably enough, they question if anyone could satisfy Harper – and Giorno – if not the cerebral, workaholic and yielding Lynch.
Even more troubling is the timing. It's symptomatic of an intolerable situation when someone of Lynch's ability and disposition packs it in just when events are putting a premium on his education and experience. Unlike the Prime Minister, Lynch really is an economist (he has a doctorate) who practised the spooky craft at home and abroad.
Reading the tea leaves over coffee***, those charged with operating Ottawa's machinery are reaching unhappy conclusions. If Harper doesn't think he needs Lynch in times this tough then it's foolish to expect him to rely on the civil service for much beyond shovelling billions out Ottawa's back door.
*The only quibble I have is that by definition a circle is the line connecting a series of concentric points. So concentric circle is a bit redundant.
***OK, maybe quibble #2 is that reading tea leaves over coffee is a bit of a mixed metaphor.