Despite inevitable suggestions to the contrary, this post is not about crapping on any particular staffer or politician. Like so many Posts here, the idea for this originated from a Tweet and the subsequent feedback. But, to be specific, no, I’m not here to complain about Gerry and/or Katie.
Rather, the objective here is to ask some questions about a system of staffing that has developed in Ottawa in recent years and – in my not-so-humble opinion – is largely responsible for much of the Trudeau government’s current problems, especially vis-a-vis “WE”.
Let’s start at the beginning: the Harper government’s so-called Accountability Act.
In 2006 fresh off a minority victory against the AdScam damaged Martin Liberals, Stephen Harper introduced his so-called Accountability Act as his government’s first piece of legislation. While there are a couple of parts of the Act that ranged from problematic to idiotic, the creation of a five-year moratorium on lobbying for all ministerial staffers when they leave government is the issue here.
No matter what the public may think or wish, political staff are both necessary and human beings: As a result of the former, getting good people in these roles should matter to all Canadians but due to the later, some of those right people may be in the middle of careers or have pesky obligations like families or mortgages to support.
But that was very much the point: the Harper crowd (especially the v1.0 that was around in 2006) were fundamentally anti-government. They didn’t want robust ministerial staff able to provide independent policy advice to Ministers. Hell – they didn’t even want the public service to provide policy advice to ministers! The Harper PMO had all the information they needed to make decisions and outside views were not welcome.
The result? The Kids in Short Pants™. A breed of political staffer that dominated Ottawa in the Harper years: Senior Policy Advisors who were neither of those things. Chiefs of Staff who looked like they hadn’t started to shave yet. And Directors of Communication who were only there to get in the minimum five years of pensionable time so they could afford to retire after decades as underpaid journalists.
Yes, there were only three types of people who could possibly afford to take jobs in government when it meant that none of the things or people they knew could be applied to job prospects for five years after the fact: newly wed, nearly dead and True Fucking Believers™. And none of those folks were going to question the orders handed down from upon high.
Fast forward to 2015. Justin Trudeau becomes Prime Minister and his teams proceeds to appoint a set of new cabinet ministers who, in turn, will all need staff.
Now, the thing about being the government – especially a majority government – is that you are bound by rules. But unlike most folks, if you don’t like those rules you can generally change them. Had Trudeau’s team fully understood the impact on hiring the Accountability Act would have, one wonders if they might not have made some early changes themselves.
In fact, as one very senior person said to me recently, they had “…pushed it back in Ontario, but underestimated its impact federally. It’s easier to recruit people to/in Toronto than Ottawa.”
Now that’s not a comment on Ottawa’s livability as a city. That’s very much about the fact that asking people who know about government and are in the primes of their careers to step away, work in government and then be unemployable in their areas of expertise for five years after is not an easy ask.
(And yes, this comment is equally applicable to ethics rules: again, the perk of being a majority government is that if you don’t like the rules, you can change them. That you can’t be arsed to change them in advance is hardly an excuse after the fact when you’ve broken them.)
But Team Trudeau shouldn’t be left off the hook here either. Not only could have changed the rules that they now realize are so problematic, they exacerbated the situation by adopting an incredibly centralized, top-down, rigid hiring system for all senior political staff.
Since 2015 no cabinet minister has been allowed to select their own Chief of Staff.
Think about that: PMO says you’re qualified to be Minister of Finance, for example, but you’re not qualified to choose the person who, more than anyone, will advise you on how to successfully do that job; the person who you will necessarily have to rely on to have your back when the going gets to tough; the person who chooses what information reaches you and what doesn’t.
Moreover, as a Minister, you know this person owes their loyalty to “the centre”, not you. Hardly a surprise that you might not confide your deepest concerns, family problems or other intimate details – all things that can become political problems – in such a person.
But there’s another side to the coin as well: As a senior political staffer, why would you stick your neck out or go the extra mile to show loyalty to “your” minister when you know where your bread is really buttered? If, again as a totally random example, you work for the Minister of Finance and he gets sacked, you’re not out because PMO will either leave you in place for the next nameless figurehead or move you to another office. No harm, no foul.
And that’s where things seem to have fallen apart for the government in recent weeks: If the PMO and Ministers’ offices had access to the best possible talent – many of whom might be folks with experience who are in their prime earning years – its hard to imagine that someone wouldn’t have said “so this WE thing…. bad idea”.
If the Minister of Finance had staff who he had brought with him and who knew things like his past vacations and that his daughter worked for a charity the Crown was about to hand nearly a billion dollars to administer, they might have said “ahhhh…boss: this isn’t going to end well”.
None of this excuses Morneau or Trudeau from what clearly is either stunning willful blindness, raging naïveté or an epic sense of entitlement. That’s on them.
But if they had staff with experience, ambition, history and direct connections to the Ministers they serve, one has to think that at least some of these own-goal errors wouldn’t be happening.
Jamie Carroll is former National Director of the Liberal Party of Canada who worked for a number of candidates, MPs, ministers, leaders and a Prime Minster, several of whom came very close to firing him for giving advice they didn’t want to hear.