Two simmering scandals – the Conservative Senate/Prime Minister’s Office affair and the Ontario Liberal government’s gas plant woes – raise serious questions about the accountability of political staff in government today. Not accountability to the voters, but accountability within the government itself. For as much as each episode seems to reveal how government ‘actually’ works, they actually raise more fundamental questions about the roles and responsibilities of unelected, politically-appointed aides.
While the scale is decidedly different – $1-billion in extra costs and compensation to cancel and compensate two energy companies for two previously-approved gas power plants in Ontario versus repaying $90,000 for ineligible Senatorial expenses in Ottawa – both political crises were galvanized into serious accountability crises by the interventions of the Premier’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Office.
On what basis were they acting and to whom were they reporting? In both cases, this remains unclear and therein resides the accountability problem.
Neither elected nor independently hired on merit, political staff operate at the very apex of governance and government. They serve where public and political interests cross and collide. From solving constituents’ problems, to advising politicians, to communicating decisions, to engaging with stakeholders, they are necessary contributors to responsible government. They are a common fixture in all governments today, a direct result of burgeoning public demands upon our politicians and the consequential professionalization of the political process itself.
For these reasons, more light, not less, needs to be shined on their activities.
While their status and provenance may be murky, the actual role of political aides in practice also turns out to be less than clear. It varies from politician to politician. Some give their staff lots of leeway; others keep them on a short leash. While they align to a collective responsibility to the government and party as a whole, day-to-day accountability is with and to the politician for whom they work.
Short of criminal wrongdoing or blatant professional misconduct, political staff were protected from being ‘thrown under the bus’ (as the euphemism goes). All understood that a collective bargain existed based on reward, competency, and loyalty. Ministers answered for their staff, and the opposition, in turn, left staff alone. Reputations would not be sundered in public for either ministerial convenience or ministerial inquisition.
This is no longer the case. Accountability has shifted as government power has centralized within the premier’s office or prime minister’s office. Once accountable solely to the prime minister and Cabinet colleagues, nowadays, a minster and his or her staff is just as accountable to a premier’s or prime minister’s staff.
Mostly, governments have sought to regulate what happens after political staffers leave government, not what they do within it. This leads to wide variance in how political offices engage within their departments and with each other. It is a license for confused accountability, on display in Ottawa, and wayward influence, experienced in Ontario.
Yet, the rules of engagement for political staff have not kept up. Ontario is only now putting in place a formal guideline to clarify the role of political staff in third-party contracts preventing them from freelancing outside the Cabinet system and making binding commitments on behalf of the Crown that led to the gas plant scandal.
But, in Ottawa, accountability has gone the other way.
Proof can be found in Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers published by the Privy Council Office. Two versions have been produced under the Harper government. The most recent in 2011 deleted a passage about the accountability of political staff that had been in place under the previous Liberal government and, in fact, in the first 2006 version under Mr. Harper’s ministry. It stated: “Ministers are personally responsible for the conduct and operation of their office.”
No more. It’s gone. Political convenience has trumped political accountability.
The federal government should put the original guideline back in place.
Political staff should be accountable to the minister, premier, or prime minister for whom they work. In turn, those elected officials should be accountable for their political staff.
That’s how it is meant to work.
David McLaughlin has been a chief of staff to a prime minister, premier, and federal ministers, as well as a provincial deputy minister.