Doug Schweitzer of Kenneyland
July 27th, 2020
Senior civil servants know how to arrange a “capture.” They want the Minister to do their bidding, not the other way ‘round. Any newly minted Minister, on their first day on the job, will be deliberately dazzled by their ministerial staff. Not to impress, mind you, but to intimidate. The Minister must learn that they know nothing of the Department, nothing of Departmental process, nothing of where the skeletons lie or where the mines are buried. That is, the civil service wants the new Minister to feel overwhelmed and therefore wholly dependent on their civil servants. It’s a reversal of roles, putting the servants in charge of the master. And it’s called the “capture.”
Doug Schweitzer is one seriously captured creature. He’s the Solicitor General for Alberta, basically the Attorney General, and I met him in July of last year.
I arrived for my meeting a touch early, as is seemly, or so it seemed. The office had just opened up and Schweitzer’s assistant, Samantha Wood, was the only person in the place. We chatted.
Ms Wood, like her Minister, was entirely new to the job. Neither had been in office before, and Schweitzer himself had spent his entire career as a lawyer. He had never run an organization before, or managed any part of any of them, so he had no background in the management requirements of running a government department.
As for his assistant, chatting with Ms Wood was a jarring experience, a series of astonishments really. She was so relieved, she said, to discover how responsible and professional the civil service was. Oh yes?, said I. Yes indeed, said she.
Running the office of Solicitor General is a huge job, and Ms Wood was mighty pleased that the civil servants were so willing, some might say eager, to relieve her of so much of her work load. The bureaucrats were pleased to do this, they were the very pinnacle of professionalism.
Yes, well, I was poker-facing the whole thing. This woman was oblivious to civil service culture.
Trying to gently nudge her thinking, I referenced Yes Minister. She’d never heard of it. I strongly urged her to watch as much of the series as possible because, you know, “it’s such a good comedy and it’s so topical to your job.”
But on she went. “Our civil servants know so much about all these issues, we can really just hand them our files and they do their thing -easy.” Seriously, she believed this.
However disconcerting chatting with the Minister’s assistant may have been, I was hopeful that the Minister himself would have a better handle on the situation.
“I am just so impressed with the staff of my Department,” he said, “I can just hand them files and they take care of it.”
Meetings with Ministers are needfully brief, I had no time to educate the Minister on the nature of the civil service or the experience of capture and its consequences. Also, he hadn’t met me before, and I had no clout relative to his bureaucrats, so my views wouldn’t count for much anyway.
Instead I held court on Manson’s Law. Does the Minister accept privately owned legislation? Does the Minister intend to alter Queen’s Printer Copyright in compliance with Manson’s Law? If not, does the Minister then intend to defend Queen’s Printer before the then immanent Supreme Court process?
Minister Schweitzer was actually quite taken aback, he had no background on Manson’s Law, he’d never heard of it and, as a former lawyer, he couldn’t fathom the concept that laws themselves could be owned. I pointed out that there were, at that time already, over $300MM of invoicings to the Provincial Government based on Manson’s Law, and if the Government didn’t fight the Ruling they’d have no legal basis for refusing to pay.
He doubted my conclusions. I handed him the Rulings. He was flummoxed.
Schweitzer rightly saw how serious this was and he committed to having his staff [sigh…] research the matter. Given the obvious and expensive ramifications of private legislation, Schweitzer committed to a follow-up meeting the following month to coordinate our roles in reversing Manson’s Law.
Then, one week later, on July 15 at 9:24AM, I received the following note from the Minister’s assistant, Ms Samantha Wood;
“Thank you for coming to meet with Mr. Schweitzer earlier this week.
“Upon further discussion, and in consideration of the limited role of the Legislative Assembly Office in matters unrelated to the constituency, our recommendations are as follows:
“Please forward a letter to the applicable government department(s) detailing your specific concerns and proposed next steps. A member of that department will then be able to provide you with an appropriate response on that matter.
Absolute rubbish. The idea that a Crown Minister ceases to be a Minister when not physically present within the buildings of the Ministry is, well, rubbish.
So, its PFO then? Seemed so.
Later that day I sent the following response;
“The Minister has already committed to a follow-up meeting in early August (actually, he promised late July to early Aug).
“I have spent eight years working with the civil service on this file. I do not have another eight years to spare. I need the early Aug meeting. Badly.
“In this, I need to hold the Minister to his commitment on this file. Please advise with scheduling particulars for the first week of August.”
The Government of Alberta only has one Solicitor General, there is no alternative Minister responsible for law, so I couldn’t just let this guy burn me. So, on the same day, July 15, I sent a note to a very well-connected colleague of mine, someone with pull. It read as follows;
“I met with the Solicitor General, not some random MLA. I addressed him as Minister throughout, with no objection from him. His argument is therefore that it’s the location of the meeting that determines his ability to act. There’s no way he believes this.
“We can’t approach the civil service because it’s the Fed civil service that’s attacking me. They stick together.
“Further, we’ve already been through the prov civil service route, I made it into the Premier’s office on the issue [in 2014]. Nothing came of it.
“Finally, the Solicitor General is the final say on matters of law in Alberta. Sending it down the ranks pushes the issue away from those with authority to deal with it. You know that’ll be the excuse from lower down; that they surely can’t do anything if the Solicitor General chose not to.
“I’ll also need to reply to Samantha’s pathetic offer to PFO me through the department. If I don’t go along they’ll say they tried to help and I did nothing. If I do go along, then I’ve played along in another endless delaying at my own expense with, as you know, zero chance of resolution from these people. So what to do?
“I know you’re supposed to be vacationing. I’m sorry to pester you with this, but I’m really stuck”.
This, my friends, is what it’s like defending against the civil service. There is no recourse to breaches in law if the legal recourse is the same outfit that’s breaching the law. It begs the question; what does one do if it’s the government that’s the criminal. Anyway….
Given the hold that the civil service has on Ministers, it was probable that Schweitzer had handed-off the Manson’s Law file to his bureaucrats already. That is, he might not have even received my response reminding him of his commitment to a follow-up meeting the following month.
Well, my super-connected colleague helpfully contacted the Minister on my behalf and, just as helpfully, furnished me with Schweitzer’s private email address. I used it.
“I am advised that you may not have received the message below [original note was enclosed].
“As the Minister responsible, [Manson’s Law] is a big deal, as is the early Aug meeting you committed to.
“My interests are minor relative to the economic risk of private law and the exposures of scale identified to you. All this is on your desk, Sir.
“I urge you to read the note below […]. I will look forward to the Aug scheduling.”
The Minister was unpleased. It seems he had handed the file off specifically so that he wouldn’t have to deal with it. He was also upset that his personal coordinates had been released. My colleague got both barrels; I got the sanitized version.
“As noted by my assistant, we do not have the resources at my constituency office to assess the merits of the issues you’ve raised.
“We looked into the best path forward to assess this matter and set those out in our response. I recommend that you follow the steps outlined by my assistant.”
Again, I was meeting with the Minister, not a constituency office, and he knew very well that the “best path forward,” as he called it, had already been travelled. The Minister, it seems, knew what he was doing, knew the consequences, but was following the advice / instruction of his civil servants. He was doing their bidding. He’d been captured.
I’ll close with this; There’s a picture that I’m quite fond of, taken on May 11, 2010, of David Cameron on his first day as the British Prime Minister. His Cabinet Secretary, the most senior civil servant, had just welcomed him into No.10 Downing Street, had just closed the door behind him, and Cameron was giving a sigh of relief at having won the Premiership, addressed the press outside, and was now inside the Prime Minister’s Office. His tenure had just begun.
The Cabinet Secretary was about to begin the capture of the new PM, and the first step is intimidation, then reassurance that the civil service is there to support him and handle anything worrying, then to give advice, bordering on instruction, to “help” the new PM find his feet. In Cameron’s day, the Cabinet Secretary was Gus O’Donnell. He signed his name with his initials; “GOD”. That says a lot.
So does his expression in the picture.