The unseen powers behind the throne


The legislative assembly’s recent decision to let the cabinet remain at seven members between now and the February 2004 election ought to have little or no impact on the workings of the Nunavut government.

The only question it raises is why MLAs decided to create an eight-member cabinet in the first place. If the legislature can function with a smaller cabinet over the next year, then why not after the next election? That’s a prospect regular members ought to welcome, since a smaller cabinet puts more votes, and therefore more power, into their hands.

Besides, this is a government in which an enormous amount of day-to-day administrative — and political — work is done quietly by those mostly unseen powers behind the throne, Nunavut’s deputy ministers.

A strong deputy minister can make a weak and inexperienced minister look good. Conversely, a weak deputy minister can cause no end of trouble for even a strong, experienced minister.

Given the relative inexperience of Nunavut’s cabinet — four of the seven are rookie MLAs — it’s essential that Nunavut maintain a strong cadre of deputy ministers and other senior managers.

After four years of turnover and occasional turmoil in which the Interim Commissioner’s original appointees have been either re-assigned, replaced or discarded, Nunavut’s senior executives are a more stable and competent group than they were four years ago.

As bureaucrats ought to be, they’re a discreet, self-effacing group. Non-elected officials are expected to keep their public profiles as low as possible, and allow their elected ministers to take credit for their work.

But in light of Premier Paul Okalik’s recent comments about the possibility of a cabinet shuffle, it’s worth taking a look at some of the relatively unknown people who actually run the GN.

• Anne Crawford, deputy minister of the executive and intergovernmental affairs:

As deputy minister of the executive, Crawford is the premier’s deputy minister. Her responsibilities include a major role in evaluating and directing other deputy ministers, and acting as secretary to cabinet. That makes her perhaps the most powerful non-elected official in the GN.

But great power often brings great vulnerabilities — those at the top of any organization often become special targets of exaggerated resentment and hostility. It may be unfair, but some MLAs, certain insiders, and other observers blame Crawford for many of the GN’s perceived shortcomings. Because of her close association with Okalik, their fortunes will rise and fall together.

On the other hand, the GN is a much stronger organization than it was in 1999, and Crawford deserves at least part of the credit for that.

• Bob Vardy, deputy minister of finance:

The department of finance is the only GN department to retain the senior managers it started with on April 1, 1999. That’s a sign that Vardy, along with assistant deputy minister Victor Tootoo, and assistant comptroller-general Rod Malcolm, have done an effective job running a difficult department. Yes, the Auditor-General of Canada found many shortcomings in the way Nunavut keeps its books — but it could have been a lot worse.

• Keith Best, acting deputy minister of health and social services:

The department of health and social services eats up deputy ministers the way a hungry polar bear eats up a den of motherless seal pups. But unlike most other departments, the elected minister, Ed Picco, has acted more or less as his own deputy minister, taking an aggressive, hands-on approach to the troubled, under-funded department. But Picco won’t be Nunavut’s health minister forever, and the question remains: Will the health department find a competent deputy minister who wants the job for good?

• Tom Rich, deputy minister of education:

The Education Act fiasco was a collective failure, so it would be unfair in the extreme to blame Tom Rich, or Minister Peter Kilabuk, for all of it. But human nature being what it is, it’s likely that blame-seeking fingers will point in their direction anyway. That means that if there are executive jobs to be shuffled around, the department of education may be where the shuffling starts.

• Pam Hine, President, Nunavut Housing Corporation:

Some insiders call her one of the GN’s “rising stars.” Anyone who can breathe life into the under-funded housing corporation and find creative ways of doing more with less is an employee worth hanging on to.

• Ross Mrazek, deputy minister of public works and services:

Mrazek has stickhandled his department through some of the GN’s most difficult files over the past couple of years — the bad gas fiasco, the restructuring of Nunavut’s fuel and dry cargo resupply systems, and the awarding of many tens of millions of dollars worth of contracts without even the faintest whiff of corruption. At the same time, he’s provided ample help and protection for the GN’s newest and least experienced cabinet minister — Public Works Minister Peter Kattuk.

• John Walsh, deputy minister of community government and transportation:

Just this week, Baker Lake MLA Glen McLean was praising the direction that the community government department has taken under Walsh’s leadership, saying it is finally beginning to understand the needs of hamlet governments. Given the infrastructure woes suffered by most Nunavut municipalities, and the numerous vacant positions within the department, this shows that Walsh is performing well.

In addition to the people mentioned above, there are more than half a dozen deputy ministers and senior managers holding an equivalent rank who we don’t have room to mention. There’s also a large group of assistant deputy ministers.

Next February, the people of Nunavut may elect a strong group of new MLAs or they may elect a weak group. But whatever happens, there is now a relatively stable group of civil servants at the top, ready to provide continuity and stability to the administration of public services in Nunavut.


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