A 2002 Critique of the Prime Minister's Office

A Critical Examination of the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Under Jean Chretien

Morgan Duchesney: 2002


1. Subject of the Study
a. Title
b. Reasons for the Study/Major Issues
2. Literature Review
3. Methodology
a. Theoretical Framework
b. Research Design / Limitations of the Study
4. Description/Comparative Analysis
- the PCO
- the PMO
5. Significance of the Study:
from a policy/program perspective
6. Results and Conclusions

Subject Matter

The title of this study is: A Critical Examination of the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Under Prime Minister jean Chretien. This paper is a critical examination of the Prime minister’s Office (PM0), which is a branch of the Privy Council Office (PCO). The PMO provides political, policy and research and communications counsel to the Prime Minister of the day, in this case Jean Chretien, the Liberal Prime Minister.

Reasons for the Study/Major Issues

I chose to study the PMO because the PMO is seen by many informed critics to be exercising more political power than is good for a healthy democracy. This centralization of power has been called excessive and the Prime Minister himself has often been accused of acting more on the advice of his PMO advisors than on his cabinet or even the Liberal Caucus of Members of Parliament (MPs). I plan to examine the PMO to determine if it indeed has exceeded the range of its legitimate responsibilities. As well, I will offer some proposals to improve the performance of the PMO.

Literature Review

I have reviewed a number of academic articles, books, websites and newspaper articles in my efforts to examine the PMO. It is interesting to note that specific structural information about the PMO was apparently unavailable on government of Canada Websites. The official PMO website featured little more than politicallyreassuring generalities. I found this disturbing and the fact that the Ottawa Citizen provided more detailed information about the PMO lends credence to critics’ contention that the PMO is a secretive cabal of power brokers rather than a neutral arm of government dedicated to the general welfare of Canada.

The articles Parliamentary Government in Canada, The Federal Cabinet in Politics and the books The House of Commons at Work, How Government Works, Organizing to Govern and the government websites all provided factual information and background with little critical content. Max Weber’s article, Bureaucracy in the book Classics of Organization Theory: Fifth Edition provided my basic theoretical framework, which will be discussed in the methodology section of the paper.

The more critical works, the articles Power, Ethnicity and Class: Thirty Years After the Vertical Mosaic, Elites, Classes and Power in Canada, The Federal Cabinet in Canadian Politics the books The Canadian Regime, Chretien: Volume 1: The Will to Win and the various newspaper articles furnished me with a less neutral perspective. These sources offer, in various forms, critiques of the Canadian government, the governing Liberal Party, the PCO and the PMO.
From these sources, I was able to gain an understanding of the past and present state of the PMO and the role it plays in Canadian political affairs. Of great significance to me is the wide divergence between the PMO’s ostensible, official duties and role and what critics claim it actually does.


Theoretical Framework
I chose as my main theoretical framework Max Weber’s theory of the Seven Principles of the ideal Bureaucracy. I have drawn this theory from the first or Classical set of organization theories. They are paraphrased as follows:
1. Specialized division of labour required.
2. A clear hierarchy of responsibility required.
3. Rules and regulations are required to create a clarity of accountability, communication and equality.
4. Official roles must transcend personal relationships to ensure impartiality of treatment in superior/subordinate relationships.
5. A clear system of promotion/career enhancement must exist. This system:
- Establishes career paths.
- Establishes probationary periods for employees.
- Provides a sense of security to employees regarding the future.
6. There must exist a separation of the personal and the official life of employees.
7. Written records/documents must be maintained to ensure clarity and accountability.

This theoretical framework will provide me with a critical lens with which to view the PMO. I am fully aware of the realities of the limitations of presenting any ‘ideal’ type as a critical/comparative tool. I have no illusions that the PMO or any bureaucracy will satisfy the requirements of Weber’s ideal bureaucracy. What I do hope to accomplish is to highlight the failings of the PMO by illustrating its organizational dysfunctions.

Research Design/Limitations of the Study

This paper takes the form of a critical/comparative analysis of various literature sources: Academic articles, books, both learned and popular, government websites and newspaper articles. As this is a relatively short paper, I plan to concentrate on the PMO rather than its complimentary organization, the PCO. This is because of the inherently political nature of the staffing reality in the PMO. The PCO is a more stable institution because it is less-dependant on the political whims of the Prime Minister, who enjoys wide appointive powers. This stability is particularly lacking in the PMO, where staff changes are frequent and are guaranteed after a national election where an outgoing prime Minister rewards his senior advisors with ‘plum postings’ before the arrival of his Prime Ministerial replacement. The new Prime Minister is politically obliged to bring in his own PMO senior staff as a way of ensuring his political survival. These periodic ‘purges’ also trickle down to the lower staffing levels and make the PMO an exciting but uncertain place of employment.

The Privy Council Office (PCO)

The PCO, currently headed by Clerk of the Privy Council Alex Himelfarb,
…supports the prime minister and accordingly, acts both as advisor on major issues of the day (encompassing the interests of all departments and as secretariat support for decision-making by cabinet and Cabinet Committees….It exists to serve the Prime Minister in the effective coordination of government policies.” ( 1: www.learnet.gc.ca, pp. 3).

As well, the Clerk of the Privy Council is the most senior public servant and is the spokesperson for the Public service. He is also responsible for, “… ensure [ing] that the Public service provides expert, professional and non-partisan advice to the Government of the day and quality service to Canadians.” (2: Ibid. pp.4). Mr. Himelfarb is the latest in a succession of top bureaucrats to occupy this post. A quote from a September, 2002 article in the Ottawa Citizen summarized the Clerk of the Privy Council very succinctly, “ [Himelfarb]… has Mr. Chretien’s absolute confidence and shares his philosophy of government. That, combined with the Privy Council clerk’s control over the public service, is a powerful combination.” (3: Ottawa Citizen, pp. A4, Sept. 30, 2002). I will now turn to a description and critical analysis of the PMO using Max Weber’s theory of the Seven Principles of the Ideal Bureaucracy. As well, I will employ the concept of revolving elites as described by Wallace Clement in his writings on John Porter, the Canadian scholar who applied the concept to Canadian political economy.


The 84 members of the PMO serve the prime minister of the day in various advisory and administrative capacitates. While the members of the PMO may deny it, it is widely accepted that, “ The members of the staff (led by the Principal Secretary) are for the most part partisan political activists rather than career civil servants.” (4: Malcolmson and Myers in The Canadian Regime, pp. 121, 1996.) The size of the PMO and scope of its duties and influence was greatly increased by former Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau and later Brian Mulroney. The PMO currently numbers 84 employees but the number has been as high as 100.

The main actors in the current PMO under Jean Chretien are Eddie Goldenberg, senior policy advisor. This man has served Chretien for over 30 years in various capacities and he enjoys the Prime Minister’s complete confidence. Goldenberg is the ultimate political insider.
Next is Francie Ducros, Chretien’s director of communications. She is a daugher of former FLQ prosecutor Jacques Ducros, a prominent liberal. This is an example of the notion of revolving elites where friends and relatives of economically and politically powerful people often ascend to new positions of power and influence. It is safe to say that Ms. Ducros professional fortunes were enhanced by her powerful father’s influence. Also, she would be considered politically reliable, as was her predecessor, Peter Donolo, now enjoying a dominant position at Canada’s consulate in Rome. His loyalty and service to Chretien were generously rewarded.

Bruce Hartley is Chretien’s executive assistant and he and his staff are responsible for arranging the prime minister’s schedule of meetings and appearances. Percy Downe, the low-key PMO chief of staff, is responsible for the hiring and dismissal of most PMO staff members. Of, course, he can be over-ruled by the prime minister, but Chretien has a great deal of confidence in this man. His influence is growing. Finally, the last of the key members of the PMO is Paul Genest, the director of policy and research. As Elizabeth Thompson wrote in the September 30, 2002 issue of the Ottawa Citizen: “ When it comes to policy, this Toronto native writes the book. Described by insiders as “brilliant,” his advice is said to be highly- respected by the prime minister.” (5: Ottawa Citizen, pp. A4, 2002.) While I was unable to determine the political/financial connections these last three have to the prime minister and the upper echelons of the Liberal Party, they are undoubtedly well connected and loyal.

Perhaps the greatest criticism leveled at the PMO as an institution is its growing power over elected MPs and even cabinet ministers. As mentioned earlier, we can trace this development back to the regime of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who decided that he needed to know as much about his cabinet minister’s issues as they did. He required them to submit to the PMO documents outlining the current concerns so he could have a leadership advantage. Trudeau felt such a policy was necessary in the governance of a complex modern society. This policy required a considerable expansion of the PMO from a simple administrative office to one of enhanced political and policy power. IT was necessary for Trudeau to retain experienced and politically reliable advisors to assist him in evaluating the policy dossiers submitted to him by his cabinet. A number of other important issues affected Trudeau urgent desire to increase the power of the PMO. The October FLQ Crisis of 1972, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Official Bilingualism, and later the Repatriation of Canada’s Constitution from Britain were Trudeau’s great challenges and it has been argued that had he not broadened the scope and power of the PMO, these dramatic events and developments would have turned out differently. The following are a series of criticisms of developments concerning the PMO:
- There is increased centralization of power in the person of the prime minister who has control of tremendous appointive powers. While the Canadian prime minister’s power pales in comparison to the global reach of a US president, his power within Canada is more immediate and practical. The US president is hindered by Congress and the Senate in a way that a Canadian prime minister is not affected by parliament .
- One of the most powerful levers at the prime minister’s disposal is an unlimited ability to appoint people to a series of lucrative and powerful positions. L. Ian MacDonald, former aide to Mr. Mulroney [prime minister], estimates the prime minister and his office can influence more than 3000 appointments, including cabinet ministers, senators, parliamentary secretaries, committee chairs, Supreme Court justices, Court of appeal justices, Federal Court judges, Superior Court judges, ambassadors, consuls, the heads of the military, deputy ministers, immigration judges and Heads of Crown corporations. ( Ibid.)
- There is increasing dependence by cabinet and MPs on the goodwill of senior PMO staff who have great influence over the all-powerful prime minister. This is an undemocratic development because it neuters the power of elected officials and shifts it to political appointees. The influence of MPs is one of the hallmarks of parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy.
- The PMO possesses power to veto cabinet minister’s choices of executive assistants (except at the very highest level, i.e. deputy ministers.) This is another blow to democracy where unelected bureaucrats wield power based on their relationship to the prime minister.

I will now employ Weber’s theory of the Seven Principles of The Ideal Bureaucracy to critique the PMO. The PMO is a typical formal organization with a clear purpose to control the government in the interests of those who own society and contribute the most money to Liberal Party campaign coffers. The delineation of authority is readily apparent to all staff at the PMO, as is the top-down communication system. The PMO is an oligarchy that serves the purposes of a very powerful prime minister.

The division of labour is precise in the PMO, with a top-down communication system attuned to partisan concerns. This extremely efficient organization istightly controlled by people hand-picked by the prime minister for their administrative skill, political savvy and loyalty. As well, the power hearty is well developed, everyone is aware of who is closest to the prime minister and who he is most likely to turn to when seeking counsel on issues. The people at the top are ultimately responsible for all good and ill fortune in the PMO and it is known that failure or poor performance is not tolerated in such an intense environment. While there certainly is a set of guidelines for employees and managers in the PMO, the intensely partisan and political nature of this institution means that much occurs at a subtle level and much that is acknowledged is unsaid. The notion of accountability is well developed but is often inspired by fear. This is a fear of the political consequences of mistakes. The smallest matter in the PMO could have national significance if not handled properly. The PMO is of course, under intense scrutiny from opposition parties and the media, who are always seeking weak points in the structure to attack in their efforts to expose the failings of the prime minister and his government.

The notion of personal relationships transcending professional ones exists in a purer form at the lower levels in the PMO. However, such a necessarily political organization cannot afford to cast the net too wide in its recruitment efforts. All employees must of course, be security cleared to various levels, but more importantly, their loyalty to the prime minister, his senior PMO oligarchy and the Liberal Party must be unquestioned. This precludes strangers from the mix because to include them would be to risk political espionage.

So far as career paths, tenure and probationary periods are concerned, all is normal on the surface but the same tenuous political, partisan considerations apply. There is likely little sense of a future in the PMO, unless one is at the top, and that future within the PMO will only last as long as the patron prime minister is in office. The possibility of a lucrative post-PMO appointment is always a possibility. For the lower, administrative levels, they remain to serve at the discretion of the incoming prime minister, who will undoubtedly have his own picked team of administrators and advisors who in turn will have their own alliances and allegiances and political debts to pay.

Written records are kept where it is legally required but much of the power-brokering and deal-making is done at the level of verbal communication. Recent and unsuccessful attempts by the Access to Information Commissioner to gain access to the prime minister’s appointment book illustrate the level of secrecy and resistance to transparency within the PMO. The Access to Information Commissioner’s goal was to reveal to Canadian’s the prime ministers regular associates in order to shed some light on the secretive business of prime ministerial conduct.


Suffice to say, the PMO falls short of Weber’s Seven Principals of the Ideal Bureaucracy in a spectacular way. However, it is efficient and effective in its mission to help the prime minister control the government. That was not its original purpose.
This paper will possibly inspire readers to question the role of the PMO as a possible hindrance to genuine democracy in Canada. The notion of the PMO as an uncontrollable, excessively powerful and unelected ‘shadow’ government has been a subject of media and academic attention since the election of the Chretien Liberal government in 1993. Ironically, the prime minister himself in the Red Book, decried the power of the PMO under outgoing Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. However, the PMO’s power under Chretien has only increased possibly because the privileges of power are simply too seductive to resist.