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Opinion Let’s bring Ottawa’s political staffers out of the shadows with a code of conduct

A number of recent government controversies have highlighted the role of the "political staffer," such as the current Senate scandal, the gas plant cancellations in Ontario, the B.C. Liberals' "ethnic outreach strategy," and various interferences in freedom of information requests.

But who are these political staff? Who hires them? Who pays them? What is their purpose? And to what extent can Canadians hold them accountable for actions that breach the public trust?

Broadly defined, political staff are hired directly by elected officials and are paid from the public purse. There are about 90 political staff working in the Prime Minister's Office, with approximately 375 others providing political advice to cabinet ministers. Their purpose is to assist government ministers in a variety of ways, but key to their task is the provision of political advice to the minister on policies or actions under consideration.

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Canadians expect and deserve an impartial, merit-based bureaucracy, but the imperative of party government requires the rendering of political advice to elected politicians. Public servants cannot, by definition, offer political advice to ministers of the crown. Political staff fill this role and are thus crucial to ensuring a clear division of labour between those who assist with "politics" and those who provide "policy options" to the government of the day.

Two trends pose challenges to the role and accountabilities of political staff. First is the fact that power is increasingly concentrated in the office of Prime Minister and Premiers. A natural consequence is a more influential role for his or her political advisors. The second is the advent of the "permanent campaign" which embraces the notion that governments should be run as a continuous campaign. This results in an intertwining of campaigning and governance that, again, accentuates the political imperative and augments the influence of political advisors. The late scholar Peter Aucoin called this turn of events the "new political governance" and, despite its potential threat to public administration, one of the positive effects may be to turn the spotlight on "the people who live in the dark" – government's vast array of political advisors.

For the most part, political staff are a crucial aspect for the proper functioning of party government, and most senior members of the public service value their contribution. But when political staff overstep their bounds and interfere in the work of the public service, or delete records, or step in to solve $90,000 worth of political problems for their boss, this raises the ire of the public and causes them to (rightly) question the proper role of political staffers and their accountabilities. Herein lies the rub. Political staff are accountable to the minister, and the minister is responsible to Parliament. When the actions of political advisors are called into question, it is the minister who must ultimately be held to account as required by our parliamentary system. They should not absolve themselves of this responsibility and conveniently place the blame at the foot of the advisor.

At the same time, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. have developed codes of conduct for political staff in order to establish some parameters on their position and clarify responsibilities in government. Canada has no such code of conduct, although political staff are subject to conflict of interest rules, to parliamentary committee requests for questioning, and (like the rest of us) to the law. But more may be required here. Perhaps a code of conduct is worthy of consideration. Likewise, an intense orientation for political staff about the proper division between politics and the public service would be helpful.

At its core, the Senate scandal serves as a reminder that ministers are ultimately accountable for their politically appointed staff. The Prime Minister should be mindful of that when he rises to answer questions on the matter in the House of Commons.

Anna Lennox Esselment is an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo

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