A palace coup in the PMO

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National Post, Friday, May 8, 2009

The Honourable Kevin Lynch does have a certain ring to it, though not quite the same cachet as Mr. Ambassador would have had.

In announcing Lynch's surprise departure as Clerk of the Privy Council yesterday, Stephen Harper's office said that in recognition of his exceptional service to the country, Lynch would be sworn by the Prime Minister as a member of the Privy Council, thus attaining lifetime status as "the Honourable" -- a distinction usually reserved for Cabinet members.

Actually, it's the Governor-General who'll be doing the swearing-in, not the Prime Minister. That's her role, not his. And former clerks of the PCO are usually accorded this distinction, though not upon their departure as the PM's own deputy minister, secretary to the Cabinet and head of the public service.

But former clerks are also, if they so desire, named ambassadors to G7 countries. Lynch's two immediate predecessors, Alex Himmelfarb and Mel Cappe, were respectively named ambassador to Rome and high commissioner to London.

Lynch has been rumoured to be in line to be Canada's next ambassador to Washington, replacing Michael Wilson in September after a normal posting of three-and-a-half years. But that's clearly not on -- Harper wouldn't announce Lynch's retirement one month, only to announce his appointment to Washington the next.

The announcement of Lynch's retirement, and Wayne Wouters's appointment as his successor, was made on a day when the PM was out of town, in Afghanistan, as it happened, on his way home from Europe.

It was the worst possible message of continuity to send to the public service, which has been putting down tools with Harper's government, offended by the schoolyard bully tactics of the Prime Minister's Office and particularly Harper's chief of staff, Guy Giorno.

Normally, the PM should have rolled out the announcement himself at the podium his office occasionally sets up in the foyer of the House of Commons, where he could have thanked Lynch, welcomed Wouters and declared his faith in the public service. It is no secret that Giorno and Lynch were barely on speaking terms, and it is very difficult to run this country if the PMO on the second floor of the Langevin Block isn't talking to the PCO on the third.

Instead, by Harper's absence, the announcement had the air of a palace coup, of a power struggle lost by Lynch to Giorno, who in barely 10 months in Ottawa has managed to offend and alienate the entire political class.

In the talking points the PMO sent around to Tory spinners yesterday, there was an odd closing paragraph: "Upon his retirement, Mr. Lynch will have served as Clerk for three years, four months. Since 1979, the average length of service for a Clerk has been three years, four months."

That's interesting. Was this detail added in anticipation of questions about Lynch being pushed out before his normal tenure was up?

There is no question that Lynch was always one of the two smartest guys in the room, and that the other smart guy was usually named Harper. It was not unusual for Harper to interrupt lunches several times to take calls from Lynch. But Harper would occasionally assert that he was actually the smartest guy in the room. The story is told of Harper telling Lynch once in front of Cabinet colleagues that there was only one prime minister in the room. Some Cabinet ministers had a difficult relationship with Lynch, with one senior minister dismissively calling him "King Kevin."

If Lynch ruffled Cabinet feathers, there is still no doubt about his ability, diligence and amazing capacity for work. Of all the PCO clerks in the last quarter-century, only Paul Tellier has a higher reputation.

If Giorno thinks Wouters will be any more of a pushover than Lynch was, he is sadly mistaken. Wouters is known as an unfailingly courteous but formidable customer who knows the entire system from several turns as an assistant secretary in PCO between tours as deputy minister in a succession of important line departments.

The breakdown of the relationship between PMO and PCO is unprecedented. But it's only symptomatic of a corrosively dysfunctional relationship between this PMO and its other interlocutors, including the central agencies of Finance and Foreign Affairs, the Conservative caucus and the Conservative party itself.

Changing the PCO won't fix that. Only changing the PMO will.

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