The Historical Relationship Between Parliamentarians and Public Servants in Canada

Article 3 / 11 , Vol 46 No. 2 (Summer)

The Historical Relationship Between Parliamentarians and Public Servants in Canada

Has the role and the work of public servants become politicized? Noting the greater frequency at which public servants are losing their anonymity and seemingly being pressured to support – rather than simply implement – politicians’ priorities, the authors review more than a century’s worth of debates of full parliament to determine whether there is evidence of outright politicization of the public service and whether such politicization (if present) has occurred more regularly over time. The authors conclude that public servants are rarely mentioned in full parliamentary debates and have only become a partisan issue within these debates on two occasions. The authors found that contrary to their expectations, parliamentarians belonging to the governing party were less likely than opposition MPs to discuss the public service and that MPs belonging to conservative parties were no more likely to discuss the public service than MPs belonging to parties elsewhere on the political spectrum.

Brendan Boyd and Barry Atkin

Brendan Boyd is Assistant Professor of Politics at MacEwan University. Barry Atkin is an undergraduate student of politics and a research assistant at MacEwan University. He will be beginning his graduate studies in public policy at Carleton University in Fall 2023. This research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. This article is part of a larger project on the role of public servants in 21st century democracy

The traditional bargain between public servants and politicians – where public servants provide professional policy advice and faithful implementation of government priorities in return for anonymity and job security – is breaking.1 As a result, public servants are more frequently being named publicly by politicians when issues arise in government, and they are increasingly required to appear before parliamentary committees that are scrutinizing government operations.2 In addition, public servants face increased pressure from politicians to actively defend their priorities to stakeholders, the media, and the public rather than simply implement them, which can compromise their political neutrality.3 But how often have the threats to public servants’ anonymity and non-partisanship led to outright politicization, where they become the focus of partisan political debates, and has this become more common over time?

We examined historical records of debates of full parliament in Hansard to determine how often Members of Parliament (MPs) have discussed public servants and what issues they have focused on. First, we hypothesize that public servants will be discussed more frequently over time as their anonymity and political neutrality has eroded. Second, we hypothesize that members of the governing party will reference public servants more frequently, if ministers are increasingly blaming them publicly, while opposition parties would reference public servants less frequently to pin responsibility on the elected government. Third, we hypothesize that members of conservative parties would be more likely to reference public servants, as their ideological proclivity for smaller government and a negative perception of government bureaucracy, would make them more likely to raise the public service as a political issue.4


We examined digitized records of parliamentary debates in Hansard between 1909 and 2019 to assess how parliamentarians have talked about public servants. We retrieved the dataset from the Library of Parliament Database (LiPaD) project. The dataset includes records of full sittings of the House of Commons and excludes committee and Senate debates because these records have not been digitized at the time of writing. The dataset was searched for key terms related to the public service (public servant(s), public service(s), civil servant(s), civil service(s), bureaucrat(s), bureaucracy) and all records containing one or more of these key terms were pulled from the LiPaD dataset.

These records containing a key term were compiled to create a new dataset which contained the date, speaker name and party, and speech text. Automated counts of the number of a key term were done using excel and counts were summed according to the year, term, and party. All records without a party affiliation were removed from the dataset as they could not be assigned to a group.

Using the yearly counts, graphs were created which span the period of study from 1909-2019. For clearer presentation, similar terms were grouped, and political parties were grouped by tags according to ideology and historical predecessors. The “Liberal” tag includes references made by members of parliament belonging to the Liberal Party of Canada in addition to members who used the “Liberal-Labour” and “Progressive-Liberal” labels. The “Conservative” tag includes references made by Reform, Canadian Alliance, and Progressive Conservatives in addition to the 1867-1942 Conservative Party and the modern Conservative Party of Canada. The “NDP” tag includes references made to key terms by both CCF and NDP members. The “Other” tag consists of the Green, Social Credit, Ralliement Créditiste, Labour, Progressive, and United Farmers parties, as well as independent politicians. Members of the Unionist government were sorted according to their original parties, with Liberal Unionists being placed in the “Liberal” tag.

To ensure the number of counts was not related to length of session, we obtained “daily” counts of public servant references by dividing the count totals by the number of days in each session as recorded in the LiPaD dataset.


We find no pattern of members of parliament references to public servants increasing or decreasing consistently between 1909 and 2019 (Figure 1). Rather, there are small movements in the number of references across the time period, with spikes in the years 1918 and 1992. These were the only years where the number of references passed 30 per day of session. No other year, during the time period we examined, passed 25 references per day of session. In the years following both peaks, there was a drop off in the number of references to public servants indicating that the burst of attention in parliamentary debates was not sustained. The years with the fewest references to public servants are 1913, 1941, and 2007. In these years, there were fewer than five references per day of session.

Qualitative analysis of parliamentary debates in 1918 and 1992 highlight the nature of the debates in those years (Figure 2). In 1918 the three most frequently referenced topics were Corruption and Patronage, Civil Service Pay, and the principle of Merit while the three topics that were referenced the least were Responsiveness and Performance; Representation, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Language; and Service Deliverly to Citizens. The three most frequently referenced topics highlight the parliamentary debate related to the passing of The Civil Service Act, 1918 which gave the independent Civil Service Commission expanded powers in staffing and organizing the public service, taking it out of the hands of politicians and political parties. For example, Prime Minister Robert Borden stated:

“The exercise of patronage in the past, as it has been condemned on both sides of the House, is the exercise by ministers of the Crown of the power of appointment, not in the public interest, as it is said, but in a party interest. The Civil Service Commission is an absolutely independent body, which is bound to make appointments to the public service upon competitive examination, or for reasons which are absolutely in the public interest.”5

Similarly, Alexander Kenneth Maclean, Member of Parliament for Halifax and a member of the Unionist government argued:

“I do not think any member should feel that he is being deprived of a privilege but rather of a burden to be relieved of patronage. We want to see the public service run on business principles, and in that way obtain the best results. In my opinion the method proposed by the Bill tends to bring that about, and we may therefore look for a great improvement in the public service.”6

In 1992, the three most frequently referenced topics were the Size and Structure of Government, Responsiveness and Performance, and Service Delivery to Citizens, while the least referenced themes were Ministerial Responsibility and Anonymity, Centralization and Decentralization and, Importance and Value of the Public Service. The topics referenced most frequently represent the debate about the contribution of the public service to government deficit and debt. For example, Robert Speller, Liberal Member of Parliament for Haldimand-Norfolk declared: “I know the national debt is a problem and bureaucrats in Ottawa and throughout the provinces seem to be out of control.”7 In addition, the role of government in the economy and its relationship to the private sector was frequently discussed. For example, then Minister of Justice Kim Campbell stated: “It is important to recognize that government will never have the creativity or entrepreneurship that is found in the private sector. We cannot have bureaucrats sitting in Ottawa trying to think up great ideas for business. That is not the role of government.”8

We compared the number of references between members of the party in power and those who were not members of the governing party (Figure 3). As the government always changes hands in the middle of a year, we tracked references to public servants by parliament number. The references to public servants are noticeably higher among members not in government than in the governing party, with three exceptions. The 11th, 13th, and 18th (1909-1911, 1918-1921, and 1935-1940) Canadian parliaments were the only times when members of the governing party referenced public servants more than those not in government. The prevalence of references to public servants by MPs in the party that formed government during these exceptional parliaments could partially be related to the number of MPs in the government party. For example, it was during the 13th Parliament that Sir Robert Borden’s Unionist Coalition was in power which produced a large government majority. The 18th Canadian Parliament of William Lyon Mackenzie King was another instance of a large government majority which would be expected to result in the government dominating discussion of public servants. However, in the 19th Parliament the Liberal Party increased its majority and discussed public servants less than the non-government parties. In the 11th Parliament members sitting in government referenced public servants slightly more while holding a majority in parliament. The similar rates of references suggests that public servants were not a partisan issue at the time.

After the 18th Parliament, the non-government parties consistently talked about public servants more than parties forming the government. This is even the case when the government had a significant majority in the House of Commons. During the 33rd Parliament when Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives were in power, the government controlled approximately three quarters of the seats in the House of Commons, but still referenced public servants less than other parties. These findings show that those in government, particularly in the post-war era, consistently talk less about the public service than those not in government.

Figure 4 tracks the references to public servants based on membership in political parties. The data shows that there is no clear relationship between membership in a political party and references to public servants. Rather, the parties discuss public servants at similar rates. The exceptions are the years where references peak. In 1918 Conservative members of the Unionist party made about twice as many references to public servants than Liberal Unionists and members of the Liberal Party combined, although references from members of the Liberal party were still higher compared to other years. References from non-Unionist Liberals were nearly eight times as frequent compared to Unionist Liberals. In 1992, the members of the Liberal Party made over twice as many references to public servants as members of the Conservative party, with members of the NDP and Bloc Quebecois referencing public servants even less.

Discussion and Conclusion

Our first hypothesis was that public servants would be discussed more frequently by members of parliament over time. However, we found that this did not occur and that public servants were rarely discussed in full parliament. The public service has only become a partisan issue, becoming a frequent topic of parliamentary debate, in 1918 and 1992. In both cases, the public service was debated during a period of increased globalization and discussion of Canadian relations with the United States. In 1918, concerns about patronage and corruption and merit-based appointments came as Canada was forced to compete in the international economy that was emerging after the First World War and in particular, with the debate about reciprocity in trade relations with the United States. Similarly, in 1992 the concerns about the size and efficiency of government, and corresponding concerns about the government debt, came in a period of globalization and expansion of the international liberal economic system and after Canada had signed the 1988 Free Trade Agreement with the US. However, the tone of the debates in these two years was different. In 1918, the public service was largely lauded by members of parliament and its independence was viewed as central to the public interest. By 1992, the public service was viewed as the problem with calls to decrease its size, introduce more private sector and market mechanisms and hold it more accountable to politicians and the public.

The second hypothesis was that public servants would be referenced more by government members attempting to shift blame while members not in the governing party would reference them less by trying to keep the attention on the elected government. But we found that members of opposition parties referenced public servants more than members of parliament in the governing party. This suggests that public servants are not publicly named and blamed by their political masters in full parliament. Members not in the governing party may not distinguish between unelected and elected officials when attempting to scrutinize or hold the government to account, or they may believe that a critique of the public service would inherently reflect poorly on the elected government which is publicly and democratically responsible for the public service’s overall performance.

The third hypothesis was that members of conservative parties would reference public servants more than other parties as their ideological disposition makes them more likely to see the public service as a political issue. However, references to public servants followed a similar trajectory among members of the major parties. When references peaked in 1918 and 1992 there was a larger difference between the members of different parties. However, while in 1918 members of the Conservative Party made significantly more references than other parties, in 1992 it was members of the Liberal Party that outpaced members of the other party in public servant references. Thus, no evidence emerges to suggest that members of conservative parties are more likely than other members to reference public servants and introduce them into debates of full parliament.

The preceding analysis suggests that while public servants may face increased public and political pressures, they have not been discussed more frequently in sessions of full parliament. This evidence suggests that the public service is not being openly politicized with greater frequency than in the past. Indeed, the analysis suggests that public servants have rarely become a partisan political issue in the 20th and 21st centuries. In addition, public servants not being discussed more frequently suggests that debates and discussion of full parliament have not decreased public service anonymity. Of course, this does not mean that public servants have not been the subject of partisan politician conflict in other forums, including the media, stakeholder engagements, and public forums. Nor does this mean that individual public servants have not increasingly found themselves named in full parliament, as such naming would not have been captured by the analysis. The findings here do not negate that public servants have lost their anonymity by appearing more frequently in front of parliamentary committees. It simply suggests that these trends have not led to more frequent references of public servants in general or the public service as an institution in sittings of full parliament, which would indicate a higher level of politicization.9

This analysis is important because a functional working relationship between elected and unelected officials is essential for democratic government in Westminster systems. The breakdown of this relationship challenges the principle of ministerial responsibility and jeopardizes public servants’ traditional role as anonymous, non-partisan officials who are held accountable internally within the executive branch. Continued analysis of debates and discussions about the public service in parliament are essential in assessing the evolving relationship between elected and unelected officials in Canada’s Westminster system of government.


1 Savoie, D. J. (2006). The Canadian Public Service has a personality. Canadian Public Administration/Administration Publique Du Canada, 49 (3), 261–281.; Grube, D. (2013). Public voices from anonymous corridors: The public face of the public service in a Westminster System. Canadian Public Administration, 56(1), 3–25.

2 Bourgault, J., & Gow, J. I. (2020). Canada’s top public servants meet agency theory in the Harper years (2006–2015). International Review of Administrative Sciences, 88(2), 302–319.; Dutil, P., & Migone, A. (2021). The changing and enduring priorities of deputy ministers through the IPAC survey. Canadian Public Administration, 64(1), 122–142.

3 Aucoin, P. (2012). New political governance in Westminster Systems: Impartial Public Administration and Management Performance At Risk. Governance, 25(2), 177–199.; Grube, D., & Howard, C. (2016). Promiscuously partisan? Public Service impartiality and responsiveness in Westminster Systems. Governance, 29(4), 517–533.

4 Cochrane, C. (2015). Left and right: The Small World of Political Ideas. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

5 Borden, R. (1918). “THE CIVIL SERVICE” Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Edited Hansard. 13th Parliament, 1st Session. Retrieved from LiPaD: The Linked Parliamentary Data Project website:

6 MaClean, A. (1918). “CIVIL SERVICE ACT AMENDMENT” Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Edited Hansard. 13th Parliament, 1st Session. Retrieved from LiPaD: The Linked Parliamentary Data Project website:

7 Speller, R. (1992). “THE CONSTITUTION” Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Edited Hansard. 34th Parliament, 3rd Session. Retrieved from LiPaD: The Linked Parliamentary Data Project website:

8 Campbell, K. (1992). “BORROWING AUTHORITY ACT, 1992-93 (NO. 2) MEASURE TO ENACT” Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Edited Hansard. 34th Parliament, 3rd Session. Retrieved from LiPaD: The Linked Parliamentary Data Project website:

9 We assumed that there would be few instances where a public servant would be named in parliamentary debates without reference to their role and position as a public servant.