Top bureaucrat Lynch bids adieu

Head of the Privy Council retires after running feud with PMO

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The Gazette, Saturday, May 9, 2009

It seemed that Kevin Lynch's entire career was in preparation for becoming clerk of the Privy Council, secretary to the cabinet and head of the public service - the second most powerful job in Ottawa, a role he has relinquished with the announcement Thursday of his retirement.

Twenty years ago, he belonged to a cohort of four assistant deputy ministers of Finance - Fred Gorbet, David Dodge, Ian Bennett and Lynch - every one of whom later became deputy there. That's how good, and how deep, Finance and the public service were in those days. The best and the brightest vied for advancement, thrived on the competition, all of them somehow reaching the top.

The call that didn't come to Lynch under the Liberals came within weeks of the change of government in 2006. With regime change, there would be a change at the top of the public service, but Harper wanted to send a reassuring signal of an appointment based on merit. Lynch's name was alone at the top of the short list.

In the three years and four months Lynch has served as head of the PM's own department, he has become the most powerful clerk of the Privy Council since Paul Tellier. And he's the only one in Tellier's class in terms of mastery of the system, dogged work ethic and intuitive understanding of where public policy meets politics.

Lynch has helped Harper navigate the shoals of two minority Parliaments, from one throne speech and one budget to the next. When Harper arrived in government in February 2006, he had an agenda for change, but no idea of how to achieve it. He had never run anything bigger than the National Citizens' Coalition in his entire life. Suddenly he was the CEO of Canada Inc., a $250-billion-a-year organization. Lynch became his chief operating officer, and facilitator of Harper's agenda within the public service, which in the beginning was glad to see to the back of the Liberals and eager to work with the new government.

For two years, Harper and Lynch worked closely with Ian Brodie, a conservative policy wonk who was chief of staff in the Prime Minister's Office. For as long as Brodie was there, until last summer, they ran Ottawa as a troika.

But when Brodie left last summer, and was replaced by Guy Giorno at the PMO, the nature of the relationship with Lynch and the PCO shifted perceptibly as the PM's office took a hard partisan turn to the right. The senior levels of the public service, previously regarded as colleagues and peers, began to be treated with disdain and distrust.

The worst moment came with last November's economic update. Without consulting the PCO, the PMO ordered the finance minister's office to insert the toxic items ending public subsidies to political parties and banning strikes in the public service, which nearly blew up the new parliament. Lynch made no secret this didn't come from the PCO or anywhere in the public service. For that matter it didn't come from the office of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. The dumbest idea in decades came from the PMO, and everyone in town knew it.

When Parliament prorogued to avoid the government's defeat in the House, Lynch played an important back-stage role with the governor-general at Rideau Hall, making sure she signed off. When the government re-couped with Flaherty's successful budget in January, Lynch did much of the heavy lifting, along with former Harper adviser Bruce Carson, who was brought in under the radar to help out.

Something had to give between PMO and PCO, the two key central agencies of the government, both housed under the same roof in the Langevin Block, across the street from Parliament. The PM's two closest advisers were barely on speaking terms. You can't run the government that way.

And this week something did give. On a day when the PM was out of the country, in fact in Afghanistan to visit our troops, the PMO announced Lynch's retirement, and his replacement by Wayne Wouters, deputy minister of the Treasury Board, who is eminently qualified for the role. One of his jobs will be to push infrastructure funds out the door, to help speed up an economic recovery before the next election.

But the way the announcement was packaged, and the timing of it, was profoundly troubling. Even if it wasn't a palace coup, it gave every appearance of being one. Yet it's typical of the manner in which this PMO operates - it doesn't have a sense of occasion, and it doesn't have any class.

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