Skip to main content

Andrew MacDougall worked in the Prime Minister’s Office for more than five years, lasting longer than most.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

Late one evening, toward the end of the 2011 election campaign, Andrew MacDougall and I talked about our jobs over a beer in a bar, somewhere in New Brunswick.

The young aide to Stephen Harper was weary, and unsure of how much longer he could carry on. The answer, it turned out, was two more years and a bit.

Mr. MacDougall, who announced Wednesday he is stepping down, is the seventh director of communications to depart the Prime Minister's Office in seven years. This says a lot about the job, the times, and the Prime Minister himself.

Backbenchers everywhere grumble about the young whiz kids who cluster around ministers and first ministers, dispensing – as the backbenchers see it – questionable advice and showing far too little respect for people old enough to be their mother or grandfather.

There's a reason those advisers are so young: the hours are brutal and the pay – considering how hard they work and the importance of what they do – ridiculously low.

The workday of a DComm for a prime minister typically begins at 5:30 a.m., with about 150 print stories to review, and ends after the network news and the final returned e-mail. If you're awake you're at work, the saying goes.

Days are spent crafting communications strategies, riding herd on the communications shops in the various ministries, putting out fires and, every now and then, answering a reporter's question.

Weekends are largely theoretical, vacations often interrupted, and personal relationships repeatedly strained or fractured.

And that pace is accelerating, with newspapers publishing 24 hours a day on their websites, blogs proliferating and social media instantaneously dispersing and interpreting breaking news.

The salaries of senior staff in the Prime Minister's Office range from around $130,000 to $180,000, which is far less than an equivalent job in the private sector would fetch.

There are rewards: a remarkable level of political influence for one so young, a chance to meet the famous and powerful, and a résumé that virtually guarantees a great job later on.

But Mr. Harper curbed the latter incentive when his government passed legislation back in 2006 prohibiting senior government officials from lobbying the government for five years after they quit.

Everyone in Ottawa quietly complains that the prohibition has made it harder to recruit top-flight people into ministers' offices and the PMO.

Mr. MacDougall, who is 38, lasted longer than most in an administration that is noted for an unusually high rate of turnover. He joined as deputy press secretary in November, 2008, just as the Harper government was plunging into the crisis over the opposition's attempt to defeat it. After several promotions, he took over as director of communications in April of last year.

He is better liked and more respected by journalists on the Hill than some who came before. But being the public spokesman for Stephen Harper is not an easy job.

The Prime Minister is exactly what he appears to be: smart, cold and relentlessly demanding. Former chief of staff Ian Brodie has spoken in the past about receiving a phone call from the PM at one o'clock in the morning – on Christmas Day.

He dislikes reporters – most of whom he believes are closet Liberals – and spends as little time around them as possible.

He doesn't like to hold press conferences and his staff restrict the number of questions he will take whenever he does have an avail, as they're called.

He and his advisers are convinced that advertising, social media and software that makes it possible to identify and directly contact potential supporters have weakened the influence of the mainstream media, making it possible to largely ignore them.

Being Stephen Harper's director of communications means mediating between that mindset and reporters who demand information and access, in an environment of ever-accelerating information technology.

That the professional life expectancy of someone in the job is about a year probably shouldn't come as a surprise.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct