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Opinion After the SNC-Lavalin affair, we must strip the influence of political staffers

Omer Aziz was a policy adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Ottawa can be a nasty place. It’s a government town where everyone in politics is constantly watching the person behind them while envying the person ahead of them. It’s a place with big egos and small intellects, where everyone seems to have at least one knife in their pocket.

From the outside, our government is a democracy with duly elected parliamentarians. From the inside, it can feel like an autocracy, with power concentrated in very few hands. There is a single node of power and all the channels run through it. That’s why the Prime Minister’s Office is colloquially referred to as “the Centre.”

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From mid-2017 to early 2018, I was a political staffer to the Foreign Affairs Minister, working on policy. We staffers were distinct from the bureaucrats who actually run the day-to-day operations of the department. Our job was to ask questions of the civil servants and to provide our minister (or the PM) with astute political advice. Pressure was part of the job description – you felt it every day, and from every direction.

We regularly met with stakeholders, including human-rights groups, corporate representatives and anyone else who might be affected by our policies, and signals regularly came from above on how to manoeuvre on a certain file. If a message comes from “the Centre” to your office, you can bet that everyone will drop everything and make sure they are meeting expectations. Refuse, and well – these people hold your future in their hands.

It would be no stretch to say that most of the important decisions made by the Canadian government are made by only a handful of people. This has led to preventable errors and bad policy outcomes such as Justin Trudeau’s India trip or the SNC-Lavalin affair. As with too much accumulated wealth, too much accumulated power is ultimately bad for democracy.

There are more than 600 political staffers in Ottawa. These jobs are not publicly advertised and are notoriously difficult to come by if you’re not already well-connected. It’s no wonder that diversity is such a problem in government – and this includes viewpoint diversity as much as ethnic and racial diversity.

Pull back the curtain and it turns out the people in the backrooms mostly resemble one another. Within the political staff itself, there exists a hierarchy, with senior staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office at the top. This is where the real decisions are made.

We need to seriously scale back the influence of political staffers and legislate what the parameters of their jobs really are. Unlike in the United States where almost all government jobs are political appointments, Canada comes out of the British tradition of having a non-partisan civil service that implements the vision of the party in power.

Over time, Ottawa has taken on the American example of concentrating power in political advisers, while Britain has sensibly restrained the takeover of government by partisans. In Britain, each minister is capped at having two political staffers, also known as special advisers.

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We don’t want to be in a country where policy directives that ought to place the public interest over narrow partisan concerns – especially on prosecutorial questions or important foreign-policy issues – are unduly influenced by short-term political considerations.

The Conservatives are not innocent in this over-politicization. During my time at Foreign Affairs, I heard horror stories about Tory staffers in the previous Harper government thrashing about, bullying and intimidating civil servants, making overt political interventions where they did not belong. The PMO ran things back then as well and constantly blurred the line of what was acceptable and what was not. The Liberals merely took this to its logical end, and built a bunker around the Prime Minister from which decisions would be made. There’s now an us-versus-them mentality to the operation; you’re either with us or you’re with the enemy.

This is the reason why many Liberals have lined up and played accessory to the humiliation of our country’s first ever Indigenous attorney-general, Jody Wilson-Raybould. They know who has power and it’s not the woman who stood on principle and on whose people’s land we are having this conversation.

How ironic that this country, founded upon the destruction of Indigenous peoples for corporate interests, demoted and then disrespected an Indigenous woman apparently because of corporate interests. This is why we should always be wary of the woman or man who claims moral superiority on questions of identity.

The biggest problem with concentrating political power is that it leads to hubris and arrogance, and eventually to critical errors. It leads people to believe that they can overstep boundaries in the name of the Boss.

Absolute power not only corrupts, it is fundamentally corrupting to the entire operation. This is not how a parliamentary system of government is supposed to work. These people are not the mafia. The government does not belong to them.

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We could cut the number of staffers in half and Ottawa would run better than it does now. There should also be a formal, publicly acknowledged policy process so Canadians can trust that the system of democracy is working from within and decisions that might shape the future of the country for decades are not being made by a cloistered elite. Concentrated power harms everyone, including those who wield it. Not only does it create the opportunity for cronyism, corruption and the perception of wrongdoing, but it leads people to think they can get away with anything. We’re about to see just how powerful absolute power really is.

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