A Push for Clarity of the Role of the Political Staffer

By Lynn Morrison

The dissection of the Ontario government’s 2012 decision to cancel the gas plant contracts is providing insight into government decision making, raising many questions about everything from the need to follow appropriate records retention schedules, to the roles of MPPs and political staffers.

The work of the Standing Committee on Justice Policy is shining a light on who was making decisions, and who implemented them. Were political staffers directing the actions of public servants, and if so, on what authority? How much did it cost? Who was really in charge?  And who should be in charge?

There needs to be more discussion and clarity about the role of political staff to give Ontarians reason to have confidence in their political institutions.

As the Ethics Executive for the people who work in Ontario cabinet ministers’ offices—the political staff –  I provide direction about conflict of interest and political activity. It is my job to make it crystal clear that government resources should never be used to carry out party activities. But it is not always clear where the line falls between government policy and party activities.

The role of the political staffer is constantly evolving.  Several decades ago, a minister’s staff consisted of a driver and an administrative assistant.  Across the board, staff sizes have grown.  And let’s be clear --  political staffers are different from bureaucrats. They hold their jobs at the pleasure of the premier or the minister they serve. They do not form a part of the neutral public service. They owe a duty of loyalty to the Crown, but if you were to ask many of them today – across the country – they would say their greater loyalty lies to their minister.

This applies to people employed by politicians from all parties – not just those in ministers’ offices .  And in my experience over the past 25 years, I can say that there is no uniform understanding of what the rules should be for how these people go about their work.

Culturally, we do not expect our politicians to lose their political stripes once they are elected. Yet it is a common cry from the opposition benches and the public that a certain government action was “political”. For that matter, so is opposition action – and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

So if the lines are blurred when we try to determine whether a politician’s actions are serving the people or serving the party, then surely they are just as fuzzy for staffers. 

The Public Service of Ontario Act was a start. Proclaimed in 2007, it tries to address the issue of political activity – but it is also clear that this was contemplated as a check on what we conventionally think of as campaign-related activities, as opposed to managing an MPP’s image during a controversy. It does not address the kind of activity that appeared to take place in the gas plant negotiations, where political staff took a lead role in decision making.  To be realistic, we must accept that our elected officials are, by definition, political – and this is also a characteristic of the people who work in their offices.   The issue is to identify when they cross the line.

This is important because the role of political staff can have a significant impact on the integrity of the public service.  It can cause the public to question whether decisions were made for purely political reasons or whether balanced policy making occurred. Should political staff be involved in contract negotiations?

As Integrity Commissioner, I have special responsibility for ministers’ staff, and I will be pushing to achieve clarity. We need to build consensus about the expectations and rules, and so I will be seeking the views of party leaders, former parliamentarians, bureaucrats, political staffers and others. My goal is to clarify the rules and expectations for political staff so they reflect the realities of modern government and increase confidence in the legislature, politicians and the public service.

Of course, rules are not the panacea.  But through discussion and mutual understanding across party lines, I am optimistic that we can learn lessons and move toward the common goal of encouraging confidence in our government.  In this time of hyper partisanship, it may prove a challenge, but I am up for it and I expect no less of our elected officials.

An independent officer of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Lynn Morrison has served as Integrity Commissioner since 2007.

This piece was originally published in The Toronto Star, April 16, 2014

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