BACKSTAGE

Trouble for tax men / buddies for bureaucrats

BLAIR FRASER January 18 1958
BACKSTAGE

Trouble for tax men / buddies for bureaucrats

BLAIR FRASER January 18 1958

Trouble for tax men / buddies for bureaucrats

BACKSTAGE

AT OTTAWA

BLAIR FRASER

IN THE PRIVATE opinion of George Nowlan. the income-tax department did as much as any other single thing to defeat the Liberals last June. He doesn't mind that, but he wants to make sure they don't do the same to the Conservatives. In a word, he thinks the Canadian tax-gatherer has been too hardboiled. too self-righteous, and too inclined to think of Canadians as people instead of persons.

Almost the first letter George Nowlan received, as minister of national revenue, came from a highly respected citizen, a retired man whom he knew only slightly. Enclosed with the letter was a thick sheaf of correspondence with the income-tax department.

This man had made an income-tax return as usual and paid his tax; some time later he got a notice of reassessment, informing him that he ow'ed $7.50 more. He wrote back, asking for an explanation of the alleged mistake. No answer. He wrote again, still asking for an explanation. No answer. He wrote a third time. Then, without any reference to his previous requests, he got a curt form letter telling him that if he didn't pay the $7.50 by Saturday, he would be prosecuted.

Nowlan asked for the same thing as the taxpayer had asked—an explanation. For the first time, the case was investigated. It turned out that the department had made a mistake; the taxpayers original return had been correct, he did not owe the department $7.50. in fact he was all square. Nowlan instructed the director of income tax for the district to write a personal letter of apology.

Another case, in Quebec City, was more serious. A man had claimed $400 exemption for supporting his mother. The department rejected his claim and assessed him for more taxes. He wrote three letters of protest, none of which was answered; then the department put a garnishee on his salary for the unpaid tax. His employer fired him. That was the state of affairs when he sent the file of correspondence to Nowlan.

Again the minister investigated. Again it turned out that the department had erred. This time Nowlan made the local director apologize in person; he himself wrote an apology too. and a letter to the man’s employer saying it was the government’s fault.

In many other less dramatic cases, Nowlan discovered that taxpayers’ complaints w(ere being answered by form letters which even he himself couldn’t understand. He has changed this. Six thousand letters have gone out over his own signature in the six months he has held office, an example he enjoins upon officials.

During the first week of January the income-tax department held its first national conference of senior officials since the new government took over. By no coincidence, the theme of the conference was “How We Can Improve Our Public Relations.”

FIVE THOUSAND Liberals, counting wives and other hangers-on, are descending on Ottawa in mid-January to get themselves a new leader, a new platform and (if possible) a new' election issue. Hut these solid unmistakable Liberal bodies could hardly attract more interest here than another group that's been making headlines, off and on, since before parliament opened. I mean those anonymous, incorporeal Grits who are supposed to infest the upper reaches of the civil service.

A. deH. McPhillips, the new MP for Victoria. H.C., first made the charge last September. Home from a trip to Ottawa that had left him extremely annoyed. McPhillips told a local C onservative rally;

“All the top civil servants and deputy ministers are Grits."

He denies another statement attributed to him, that “after the next election when we have a more secure mandate, more stern action will be taken." but the official minutes of the meeting quote him to almost precisely the same effect:

“There are those in the top echelons

of the civil service who are playing politics . . . and if these public servants continue to play politics they will need to be weeded out.”

McPhillips says that is correct; what’s more, he still believes it.

I interviewed a dozen cabinet ministers and parliamentary assistants, the men who actually deal with the civil service, to see if any shared McPhillips’ view. The answer w'as unanimous: “Utter and absolute nonsense. We’ve had hundred-per-cent co-operation and a first-class job from all our officials.” Howard Green, the House leader, has to deal with more senior civil servants than anybody else — besides two departments, Public Works and Defense Production, he has six crown corporations (Central Housing, Polymer, etc.). Green says Canada has “the best civil service in the world,” and that the loyal help of permanent officials was invaluable to the new government.

Co-operation was mutual, of course. The new ministers who trusted their advisers are being rewarded in esteem.

In Health and Welfare the Liberal ex-minister, Paul Martin, used to ring up Deputy Minister George Davidson occasionally and ask about various things in the department. Davidson answered as became an old friend and former subordinate, but he felt a little uneasy, so he consulted the new minister, Waldo Monteith.

Monteith said: “George, relax. I

have complete confidence in your loyalty. I know you wouldn’t give out anything secret or confidential. As to what information you should give out, I leave that to your own good judgment. Don’t worry about it.”

Needless to say, Montcith’s relations with his staff are excellent.

In the Post Office neither the minister nor the staff expected similar good fortune. Postmaster-General Hill Hamilton, while in opposition, had been the most acidulous of ali the critics; unlike most Conservative M IN he had attacked his chosen department in great detail, and often singled out officials for direct criticism. When he turned up as head of the same department, he expected to

find resentment—and so, no doubt, did his staff.

Hoth turned out to be wrong.

Hamilton today speaks, with enthusiasm that has a dash of astonishment in it, of the warm co-operation he has had from the Post Office Department. As for its w'orkers, their worst fears have turned out to be groundless. The Post Office has had the reputation of being one of the last surviving havens of old-style political patronage; there, if anywhere, it was expected that heads might roll after June 10. But Hill Hamilton said “no patronage” when he took office, and he seems to have been as good as his word. Only two Post Office employees have been dismissed for political activity; another eight or ten cases are still under consideration; and that, for all Canada, is all.

George Hees in Transport, another department with lots of low-level patronage jobs, has the same story to tell. Of his top officials he speaks in the warmest terms, as they do of him. Of the odd jobs at the bottom, a few have changed hands for political reasons— one was brought up in the House of Commons, and Hees scored a debating triumph by proving that his policy was identical with that of the Liberals after 1935. A few others have been dismissed on the same grounds, “political activity.”

Oddly enough, “political activity" in this sense does not include running for parliament. Maurice Punshon, who was CCF candidate in Toronto-Greenwood in 1953 and 1957, and has just been nominated again for 1958, is a prevailing-rate employee of the Department of National Defense. When he first decided to run tor the CCL four and a half years ago, his immediate bosses told him he couldn't do it. He took it up with the heads of the defense department and with the Civil Service Commission; both assured him he was quite within his rights in running for office. It's only the kind of back-room political service, which used to be repaid with political jobs, that is forbidden to this type of government employee. (Permanent civil servants, ot course, must stay out of politics altogether.)

However, even the topmost of civil servants may have a political background with no harm done. One example is .1. Gordon Taggart, deputy minister of agriculture, who once was minister of agriculture in a Liberal government of Saskatchewan.

Taggart was supposed to have retired last September 28, and his former minister, another Saskatchewan Liberal named James G. Gardiner, had suggested no change in this routine. Doug Harkness, the Conservative incumbent, asked Taggart if he’d be good enough to stay on. The two men get on extremely well (better than Taggart and Gardiner ever did, some observers say) and the agriculture department is in a fine state of harmony and high morale.

David Sim, deputy minister for customs and excise, is another civil servant with a chequered political career. In point of service he is the most senior of all deputy ministers, but he came to Otfawa thirty years ago as a political appointee—private secretary to a Liberal minister, W. D. Euler. However, Sim got his promotion to a deputy minister’s rank some years later, from a Conservative government. He is in fact the only deputy minister in Ottawa who has held that office since the days of the Hennett regime.