Political staffers, aides, and “exempt staff” are too often maligned in Canadian politics. Neither elected nor “independently” hired, and with salaries paid by government revenues, they have unrivaled access to elected officials at the very heart of decision making. Despite their reputation as shadowy figures wielding undue power, staffers perform a plethora of crucial tasks: from coordinating and ensuring delivery on electoral mandates and advising politicians, to participating in policymaking, communicating political decisions, and engaging with stakeholders.
Most recently, Senator Mike Duffy’s 2014 expense scandal put staffers back on the political radar nationally, and in the hot seat publicly. However, considering the significant number of staffers at the federal and provincial levels, there have been few scandals directly involving staffers. Two staffers of former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, for example, were accused of being involved in what is now known as the Gas Plant Scandal. One of British Columbia Premier Christy Clark’s staffers was charged in violation of the BC Election Act this year in the Quick Win ethnic outreach scandal. Two of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s senior staffers have also made recent headlines for claiming relocation expenses that many considered to be inappropriate (though officially legal). It seems that misjudgment, oversight, overspending, and occasional outright criminal activity by political staff have come to occupy a place in public media, where sound bites and headlines remain in the minds of the public long after staffers’ names are cleared. Questions remain regarding the place and role of staffers in parliamentary politics, and their accountability in the democratic process.
To whom are political staff accountable today? How should (if at all) the balance of accountable politics be adjusted?
On November 10, the Massey College Democracy Study Group held a two-part panel discussion entitled “Powerful but Unaccountable: The Modern Role of Political Staff” to address this very issue. The first panel asked: to whom are political staff accountable today? And the second asked: how should (if at all) the balance of accountable politics be adjusted?
The depth of experience of panelists was impressive, which incited a productive conversation including the perspectives of former political staffers, communications directors, journalists, and academics. Despite their diverse backgrounds, there was consensus among panelists that the role and status of political staff remains murky both in theory and in practice, but unequivocally necessary. This is largely because staffers’ roles differ from minister to minister, in a way that is much more fluid than it is for public servants. Accountability remains tied to the minister for whom they work, and therefore political work a heterogeneous endeavor.
Karim Bardeesy, former Deputy Principal Secretary to Premier Kathleen Wynne, made a compelling argument in defense of political staff. He argued that staffers are necessary to partisan politics because there are roles only staffers can perform. Local and international premier tours, for example, cannot be undertaken by public servants. While staffers are under increasing scrutiny, Bardeesy argued that there is a lack of appreciation from the public of how little time ministers have to do the work of governing. With hours spent in caucus meetings, on House duty, and in their constituency alone, ministers have very little time to develop their given files and mandates. So, they must rely heavily on their political staff. With a heightened level of loyalty and a fervor to fulfill partisan goals, staffers use informal “in-between” times to brief and advise ministers–times that are not available to public servants.
Hugh Segal, former Chief of Staff to the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, underscored the rationale for “exempt” status for political aides. He argued that the status exists largely to shield public servants from the “partisan virus.” For Segal, political staffers play the role of translating between elected officials and public servants, relaying mandates and direction of a given government. He argued that this partnership is necessary to adequately maximize both the knowledge of public servants, and the acumen of political staff – with the ultimate goal of providing the best possible advice to ministers of the Crown.
Bill Fox, former Press Secretary and Director of Communications for the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, agreed with Segal, purporting that clear lines between staffers and civil servants are necessary for their relationship to work because they hold very different roles in relation to the Minister. Issues that threaten or undermine a Minister are paramount in the minds of staffers, in a way that is very different from public servants. Chaviva Hosek, Professor at the School of Public Policy & Governance, University of Toronto and former Director of Policy and Research for the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien, emphasized the need for staffers to respect the public service, especially when they are imbued with enthusiasm over a political turnover. For Hosek, the difficulty for staffers is striking a balance between learning and working collaboratively with the public service to best advise the Ministers, while simultaneously avoiding being swallowed by them. More importantly, Hosek highlighted that political advisors are not the decision-makers. Ministers are the ones who are elected, and therefore hold the decision-making power.
On the question of accountability and adjusting the balance of power, the panelists agreed that working from an assumption that there is an imbalance of power and an accountability deficit is problematic. While there is room for staffers to abuse their power, all speakers agreed, with certain exceptions, staffers enter their positions with the desire to do well by their ministers and to serve with integrity. Sean Speer, Senior Fellow at the School of Public Policy & Governance, University of Toronto and former Special Advisor to the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, and Dr. Anna Esselment, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Waterloo, both argued that many suitable accountability measures already exist.
Ultimately, Esselment argued, from a constitutional perspective, it is Ministers who are responsible and accountable for their decisions–and for the actions of their staffers. In practice, however, this responsibility seems to be increasingly shifted towards staffers, Esselment said. New guidelines on the Conduct of Ministers, Exempt Staff and Public Servants, handed down from the Privy Council Office in Ottawa last fall, demonstrate this further watering down of responsibility from Ministers to staffers, which Esselment argued is quite concerning.
The first step in addressing the question of accountability is to take stock of who staffers are, where they are located, what duties they perform, and to whom they report.
There are over 600 political staffers at the federal level alone. They are not Ministers (who are accountable to Parliament and to the public), nor are they public servants (governed by the Public Service Employment Act and other pieces of legislation). The first step in addressing the question of accountability is to take stock of who staffers are, where they are located, what duties they perform, and to whom they report. Only then can the issue of alleged boundary overstepping and abuse of power really be understood. Too much of what staffers actually do in parliamentary politics remains ill-defined.
Nalisha Asgarali is a Master’s of Public Policy Candidate (2018) at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University Toronto. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto in Political Science and International Relations. She also holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from York University (2012). Her policy interests include immigration and refugee settlement, diversity and equity policy, international affairs and intergovernmental relations.