He’s the Biggest Power Broker in Canada Whom You’ve Never Heard Of

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Throughout the history of the Canadian government, few jobs have been as little publicized as the clerk of the Privy Council, soon to be filled by the recently appointed John Hannaford, a senior public servant and former diplomat. While most Canadians would be hard pressed to define his new job, Mr. Hannaford is not to be underestimated.

“Aside from the prime minister, the clerk of the Privy Council is the most powerful person in Ottawa,” Donald J. Savoie, a professor at University of Moncton who studies public administration, told me. “So when a new clerk is appointed, it matters.”

When Mr. Hannaford officially takes over on June 24, he will become, along with the deputy ministers under each cabinet minister, the gatekeeper responsible for turning the politicians’ policy ideas into action.

The clerk manages the deputy ministers and has three duties that sometimes overlap. He is the head of the public service, which is made up of nonpartisan bureaucrats who stay in their jobs as politicians and political parties come and go.

The clerk is also manages and coordinates the cabinet as its secretary, and perhaps most important of all, he is the prime minister’s top adviser.

Professor Savoie said that the clerk and the prime minister meet several times each week and that each brings a separate agenda.

“A lot of key decisions are made at those meetings,” he said, adding that those sessions are often more important than cabinet meetings. A cabinet minister, Professor Savoie said, once told him that the cabinet had long ago become a “focus group for the prime minister.”

The trend toward concentrating power in the prime minister’s hands, and by extension the clerk’s, has been going on for decades under both Liberal and Conservative governments. And Professor Savoie said that it’s not necessarily a power grab.

Increasingly, the federal government finds itself grappling with issues, like climate change, that involve several ministers, departments and agencies, and the role of the clerk is to coordinate that work.

Part of this arrangement is that the clerk and the public servants he commands keep out of public view. The government was unable to provide me with a high-resolution photograph of Mr. Hannaford, and the Privy Council Office said that he was not available for an interview.

The thinking behind that intentional obscurity is based on the idea that the public service is there to support to the government of the day, whatever its political flavor, and so it leaves politicians to be the government’s public face.

But several laws actually remove decision-making powers from cabinet ministers and place them with public servants. The result, Professor Savoie said, is often situations like the recent backlogs in passport offices, as politicians had to take the blame for decisions in which they were neither involved nor even consulted.

Luc Juillet, a professor of public administration at the University of Ottawa, said there was a tendency among politicians to focus on new policies and programs rather than the less glamorous task of making sure that the machinery of government runs smoothly.

“It’s not necessarily the kind of thing that drives most politicians,” he said.

Mr. Hannaford has a distinguished résumé as a policy maker. A lawyer and diplomat who began his career at what was then called Foreign Affairs, he has been an important player in trade talks including the recent renegotiation of NAFTA; has dealt with climate issues, most recently at Natural Resources Canada; and was once a foreign and defense policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau.

But absent from all that, Professor Juillet noted, is any extensive experience in government operations.

To Professor Savoie, the appointment of someone with Mr. Hannaford’s background in international relations and defense is a signal from Mr. Trudeau of what he now views as the greatest challenges facing his government, which are largely international. They include allegations of Chinese meddling in Canadian elections, trade policy in the United States, global climate change and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The new international order is full of pitfalls, and the prime minister needs a helping hand,” he said.

  • Norimitsu Onishi went to Winnipeg to report on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s donation of its former flagship store. Residents are debating whether it was an act of reconciliation with the Indigenous people who played a critical role in the company’s history or an empty gift.

  • When I went to Alberta a few weeks ago to report on this week’s provincial election, I found a number of lifelong Conservative voters who were put off by Premier Danielle Smith’s anti-vaccination stance and her libertarian agenda and sometimes inflammatory rhetoric. Ms. Smith’s United Conservative Party government was returned to power, but with substantially fewer seats in the legislature.

  • Wildfires continue to burn after blanketing Halifax in smoke, consuming houses and forcing thousands to evacuate within the city’s metropolitan boundaries.

  • In the continuing evolution of Canadian antismoking warnings, individual cigarettes will bear messages printed on their paper, including “Poison in Every Puff.”


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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