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A new code for the ‘kids in short pants’

The Globe and Mail by Anna Esselment 14 December 2015

Ottawa will soon be flooded with eager political staffers ready to serve the new Liberal government. They are tapped through a variety of sources: national and local campaigns, provincial Liberal governments, academia and the government-relations world. More than 20,000 résumés were uploaded to the Liberal Party website in the scramble for positions.

Such committed political staffers (also known as “exempt staff” since they are exempt from normal public-service employment rules) are an essential ingredient of parliamentary government. They give ministers the kind of partisan advice that public servants cannot – and should not – provide.

However, these proverbial “kids in short pants” can also attract controversy. Recent examples at the federal level in Canada include the Liberal advertising sponsorship scandal, interference with access to information and the 2013 Wright-Duffy affair in which the prime minister’s chief of staff resigned after writing a $90,000 personal cheque to a senator who was under investigation for improper expense claims.

Political staffers have also been in the eye of the storm in other jurisdictions, such as the “gas plant scandal” in Ontario, the leaking of cabinet documents about the privatization of BC Rail to lobbyists, the Children Overboard Affair in Australia and the “sexing-up” of the Iraq weapons of mass destruction dossier in Britain.

Episodes like these heighten concern that political staffers are unaccountable and uncontrollable.

As a consequence, there have been calls for separate accountability measures for political staff. Justice John Gomery, who headed the inquiry into the sponsorship scandal, recommended a code of conduct for ministerial staffers – something which has been adopted in Britain, Australia and New Zealand – and the Ontario Integrity Commissioner has recently pushed for clarifying the rules and expectations for ministerial staff behaviour.

Recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took an important step in the direction of increased accountability by including, for the first time, a code of conduct for federal ministerial exempt staff when he announced his updated guide for ministers, Open and Accountable Government

Much of the content is not new: Paid with public funds, exempt staff must support government business, not party activities; they should provide ministers with political support and advice but must complement and not undermine the non-partisan work of the public service, nor may they give direction to public servants.

Previously, these instructions were scattered through various documents; the new code makes all these provisions visible in one place and, vitally, makes following them a condition of employment. This guarantees that they will be noticed and will be taken seriously.

The code breaks new ground too. It forbids political staffers from deceiving or knowingly misleading Parliament, ministers, public servants or the public and, positively, requires that staffers treat everyone with whom they have contact “with respect and courtesy.” These provisions are welcome since, in the 24/7 political hothouse environment of the permanent campaign, tensions run high and exuberant partisans can occasionally forget some of the basic rules of professional interaction.

The new code also comes as the traditional composition of political staff is changing because of the impact of the former Conservative government’s 2006 Federal Accountability Act, which introduced a five-year ban on lobbying by former exempt staffers and also narrowed their opportunity to transfer into public-service employment. Taken together, these changes tend to limit the supply of available talent, leading to younger, less-experienced staff. In this respect, a written reminder of their proper role, expectations and limitations will be helpful.

Canadians should not expect the code of conduct to bring about an end to episodes of wrongdoing by political staff. Over the next four years, there will be cases in which Liberal aides make bad judgment calls that result in questionable behaviour. But the advent of a code has the potential to make a positive contribution to the nascent professionalism of the political staff role, and we are pleased to see one in place in Canada.

Anna Esselment is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. Paul Wilson is an associate professor in the Clayton H. Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Carleton University.