In defence of political staffers

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Thursday, December 06, 2012 View Count = 1708

In defence of political staffers

by Karen McRae

Political aides, or political staffers, have long been employed by ministers in the Government of Canada. Although they are hired and fired directly by the minister they are responsible to, their salaries and benefits are paid from government revenues. They are exempt from the rules that regulate the public service -- they are not recruited by competitive selection and are free to be overtly political. Government considers the combination of political and technical advice offered by political staffers to be of such importance that their salaries are paid out of tax revenues, rather than the funds of the political party in power. 

Political aides have frequently come under severe scrutiny and criticism. However, Ian Brodie contradicts this general trend in a stirring defence published in the most recent edition of the Canadian Parliamentary Review, aptly entitled “In Defence of Political Staff.” As former Executive Director of the Conservative Party and Chief of Staff to Stephen Harper from 2005-2008, Brodie has extensive experience dealing with political staffers. 

Political staffers, according to critics, are “relatively junior, do not understand the constitutional foundations of the political system, lack deep knowledge of the machinery of government, and do not have training or expertise.” Brodie agrees that staffers tend to be young and relatively inexperienced. He argues that this is largely because political staffers have no job security of any kind. As ministers are held personally responsible for the actions of their aides, they can be, and often are, immediately dismissed for any serious infractions. Furthermore, once fired, staffers have no route back onto the career path. Very few are rehired once terminated. Brodie argues that finding deeply experienced staff is a major challenge. Academic training, taught by those with first-hand experience, can help offset staffers’ greenness. On-the-job, applied training can also crucially increase staffer quality. Clear expectations drawn from prior experiences and set down into formal yet flexible codes of conduct can also assist in increasing job expectations and accountability.

Brodie discusses the difficulty in answering the indictment that political aides are not clearly accountable for their actions. They do not answer to Parliament, nor are they regular public servants governed by legislation. In particular, political staffers have been criticized for unduly interfering in the purview of the public service. However, Brodie argues that the public service is already sufficiently protected from such overreaching by clear and powerful legislation. Furthermore, deputy ministers are responsible for supporting and protecting their public servants from undue interference from political staffers. While Brodie acknowledges that such accountability is “pretty rough,” it ultimately depends on the willingness of ministers to sanction bad behaviour. If ministers refuse to do so, it is up to the voter to show their displeasure on
election day.

Karen McCrae is a recent graduate of the Political Science program at the University of British Columbia. She currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

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