Political staffers and the work they do is one of the great tropes out there in society, regardless of the country you live in. Some people say they are nothing but toadies running to the dry cleaning. Others go in the polar opposite direction, saying that they rule the whole roost, and are a cabal of nefarious and ill-intentioned people trying to run a shadow government; you know, like the Illuminati, but with cheaper suits and running on copious amounts of Tim’s coffee. But of course, like most things, the truth of the matter is much more benign and magical.
This is something that I know because I spent the last nine years of my life working as a political staffer on Parliament Hill. I spent almost my entire 30’s working in the NDP caucus under three different MPs, and just for a good measure of comparison, I actually spend the three years before that working as a federal civil servant. So it was with that in mind that I read a new opinion piece from the Globe and Mail that came out last night from another former Hill staffer, painting a picture of political work that was just too over the top for me to stay silent about.
The writer of the piece, Omer Aziz, spent a total of less than a year as a staffer after a distinguished education according to his website. He was educated at Queen’s University, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, Cambridge University, and Yale Law School. He also worked for the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, which would make him a good choice to work for the Minister of Foreign Affairs. So the man is no slouch, credit where credit is due. But I must take serious issue with his piece, not only in how he describes the work, but also how he describes the problem and what he prescribes as the solution.
The basic premise of this piece is that political staff inject politics and political thinking and considerations into the policy process and that is somehow dirty, corrupting and the source of all that is wrong in Ottawa. And his solution is as simple; get rid of half the political staff in Ottawa and the place would run so much better. He also goes onto say that there should be a “formal, publicly acknowledged policy process” because somehow he postulates that doesn’t exist already. By the way, that formal process does exist; it’s the legislative process that is the whole raison d’être for Parliament.
In my view this piece comes from a naïve place and starts with equally naïve assumptions. The biggest assumption is that “Political = evil, bad”, and that’s just wrong. Can some political behaviour be bad? Absolutely. But political behaviour can also be good, and bring about great results. Look at all of the progressive policies that we have in Canada that have come from good political behaviour; public healthcare, CPP, Employment Insurance and many others. Those didn’t come to pass from simply philosophical thought and discussion making it happen; that took political will and action.
And why did it take political will and action? For the biggest reason that I have a problem with this opinion piece; We are a Democracy!!! Democracy means having people participating, voting, taking part in the process. What Mr. Aziz seems to try to describe is some kind of top-down, panel of experts on all to rule and determine what we do because “they know best”. But that’s not how democracies work, and that’s a good thing. In a democracy, you need to have the people with you, you need to have enough buy in to make the policy work. That’s not a clean, simple process and is far from being an academic one; in many cases, it’s just as emotional as anything else and a cold, clinical approach to policy making can’t account for that.
The idea of the concentration of power is brought up and I would point out something that shouldn’t shock people. Yes, there are hierarchies within elected government and that makes sense. It makes sense that the office of the Prime Minister, you know, the person who leads the elected government, should have a bit more clout than the office of the Minister to FedNor. It equally makes sense that those who work directly for the Prime Minister, the leader of their party, will hold more sway and more power. And guess what? That’s no different than any workplace, public or private. It’s true in the civil service, it’s true in factories and mines, it’s true at the local McDonald’s down the road.
The problem is not where the power lays, it’s how that power is used and managed. Like Mr. Aziz, I’ve heard horror stories from the Harper years about political staffers going after civil servants and having spent my time in the civil service during the Harper years, I hear horror stories from that end too. But while dealing with the Harper government and with the current Trudeau government, I also heard good stories of political staff who operated with respect, care and collegiality. I can point to colleagues in all political parties who I have dealt with who meet that positive description. So to try to paint all political staffers as a marauding crew of vandals burning and pillaging their way through the civil service towers of downtown Ottawa is just wrong.
In my experience, one common denominator to how politicians and their political staff operate is if the politician has ever managed staff before. We have to remember that politicians come into office from all kinds of different backgrounds, and most of them have never been responsible for managing a staff. They don’t know how to be the “manager“ or the “boss”, and that can lead to troubles from time to time. Sometimes that involves not having general expectations laid out for their staff, or in others that can go the other way and be micromanaging to a damaging level. Also there is the whole idea of the portfolios a minister or opposition critic may have; if they are in a subject area they have no background or experience with, that can make them very dependant on their staff. That can turn out good or really bad, but can be a reason for issues.
So in the end would Ottawa operate better without all that political staff? Is that the panacea that it’s being presented as? Simply put, No! Political staffers work long, grueling hours with tonnes of stress and heavy work loads not because they choose to make it that way. It’s that way because there is that much work to do, and there’s always more that’s been dropped off to the wayside. These staff fulfill important roles, despite the value of their work being run down like this on a regular basis.
Finally, I will just close on this last point. We have a political system, and there needs to be a conduit, that can make that connection between the political and the civil service. Our system is political because we vote, we choose new policy directions and ideas, we pick a team to bring those ideas to life. Their legitimacy comes from those ballots, and the legitimacy of those staffers comes from who they work for. Staffers are only acting on the will of their bosses and the only power that political staffers have is the power given to them by their bosses. So to lay the blame at the feet of staff for is just wrong. Staffers didn’t create that environment and if it needs correcting, it’s the elected people, who are directly answerable to the electorate, who need to do it. As a staffer, you accept that you serve at the pleasure of your boss, and you accept that if you mess up you will have consequences. But if the boss gives no consequences or encourages or turns a blind eye to bad behaviour, who is really to blame here?
Democracy is not always neat and tidy; it can be messy from time to time and can result in poor choices and mistakes being made. But the alternatives are no better. Political staffers are an important part of our political process, whether if we like to admit it or not. The fact is that there are thousands of political staffers in Canada who go to work everyday determined to make their country a better place. They are not all hyper-partisan toadies without conscience. Most are doing this work for all the right reasons, just like the non-partisan civil service. They are all a part of the democratic ecosystem that we have and all have a vital role to play.