Canada’s top civil servant steps down over role in ministerial battle

By on 19/03/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Former clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick

Canada’s most senior official, Michael Wernick, has announced his early retirement as clerk of the Privy Council after being caught up in allegations that prime minister Justin Trudeau improperly put pressure on the country’s attorney general. 

In a letter to Trudeau published yesterday, Wernick wrote that “recent events” had led him to conclude he could not remain in his job in the run-up to October’s general election and would step down “well before the writ of election is issued.”

Wernick told Trudeau that it is “apparent that there is no path for me to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the leaders of the Opposition parties.”

“One of the key roles of the Privy Council Office is to be ready to assist whichever government Canadians elect in October,” he said. “Furthermore, it is essential that during the writ period the Clerk be seen by all political parties as an impartial arbiter of whether serious foreign interference has occurred.

“Therefore, I wish to relinquish these roles before the election. It is essential that Canadians continue to see their world leading public service as non-partisan”.

Allegations of interference

It’s alleged Trudeau and his aides – including Wernick – put pressure on the former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to halt the prosecution of Quebec-based construction firm SNC-Lavalin. Former executives of the company are accused of paying bribes to the Gaddafi Libyan government to win construction contracts between 2001 and 2011.

In a February statement to the House of Commons justice committee, Wilson-Raybould said: “between September and December 2018, I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with SNC-Lavalin.

“These events involved 11 people, excluding myself and my political staff, from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office and the Office of the Minister of Finance,” she said. On 19 December, she alleged, Wernick called her to emphasise the risk of job losses or disinvestment if the prosecution proceeded, and to raise concerns that the PM was determined to secure a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) – sparing the business from prosecution.

Wernick had, she said, explained that the PM “does not want to do anything outside of the box of what is legal or proper,” but that he “wants to be able to say that he has tried everything he can within the legitimate toolbox.”

Wilson-Raybould refused to change course, and the PM reshuffled her out of the attorney general’s job into the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In early February, she resigned from the government.

Like skittles

A week later Gerald Butts, a key aide and Trudeau’s principal secretary, quit his job whilst denying any wrongoing. And on 4 March Jane Philpott, President of the Treasury Board, resigned. Noting that ministers are expected to defend all Cabinet decisions and other ministers, she said that given “the current circumstances, it is untenable for me to continue to serve as a Cabinet minister.

“Unfortunately, the evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former Attorney General to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin, and the evidence as to the content of those efforts have raised serious concerns for me.”

The justice committee continues to interview key figures, twice questioning Wernick. Opposition MPs criticised the clerk’s comments as overly political, and Canada’s Global News has reported that Kevin Lynch, a former clerk to the Privy Council now chairing SNC-Lavalin’s board, had contacted Wernick to seek a DPA.

New clerk named

Trudeau said in a statement on Monday that Ian Shugart, currently the deputy minister of foreign affairs, will replace Wernick as clerk “in the coming weeks.”

“Ian Shugart will bring with him a wealth of experience to the role of Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet,” he said. “Having served as a deputy minister in three different departments, Mr Shugart is well-placed to lead the federal Public Service as it continues to implement the Government of Canada’s agenda and deliver high-quality service to Canadians.”

Trudeau thanked Wernick for his public service, saying: “Since 1981, he has distinguished himself as a dedicated public servant, focused on building a modern, agile, and world-class Public Service that places the needs of Canadians at the forefront of its work. I also thank him for his support over the last few years as we worked to implement an ambitious agenda to build a better future for the people and communities at the heart of this country.”

In an October 2016 interview with Global Government Forum, Wernick explained that he “came very close to retiring” in 2014, but was asked to become deputy clerk and, two years later, clerk. In that role he worked to improve talent management, cross-departmental performance management and digital government, whilst fielding the fall-out from Canada’s ailing Phoenix pay system and its shared services scheme.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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