When Premier Rachel Notley presented her State of the Province address in Calgary last October, she did it in front of a hand-picked crowd of 700 supporters who applauded at all the right moments—particularly when she attacked her political opponents. “We reject this obsessive idea, advanced by our colleagues on the opposition benches, that in tough times we need to make Alberta’s situation worse through a knee-jerk cutback to public services,” she said.
Usually the State of the Province address is an aspirational look at how Alberta is doing and where the government hopes to take us. This time Notley treated it more as a campaign speech. You half expected balloons to fall from the ceiling while campaign signs sprouted from the audience as she went into full election mode.
Without naming names, she needled the Wildrose for advocating cuts to government spending. And she blamed the Progressive Conservatives for failing to get new energy pipelines to tidewater. “On few files was our province more poorly served than by elected officials… who claimed with a straight face there was no need to act decisively or effectively on climate change,” said Notley. “This failure to attend to the fundamental strategic interests of Alberta is a key reason why we remain landlocked today, despite 10 years of promises.”
Notley didn’t write the speech, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Like most politicians, the premier has speechwriters. What might surprise you is that the people who write such partisan speeches are paid for not by the Alberta NDP but by taxpayers. They are called political staff.
The work in a politician’s office used to be done by civil servants or by the politicians themselves. But that was decades ago, when Ernest Manning was premier of Alberta and John Diefenbaker was prime minister of Canada. Political staff began to come into vogue under Pierre Trudeau federally and Peter Lougheed provincially.
Civil servants are honour-bound to serve all citizens and not the particular interests of any political party. They are paid for by the people to do the work of government, and are loyal to the public. Civil servants are non-partisan and difficult to fire because they must be able to speak truth to power without fear of losing their jobs. Political staff, on the other hand, are fiercely partisan and can be counted on to toe the party line or else. They are hired and fired at the discretion of the premier. But they too are paid for by the public.
In Ottawa, political employees are called “exempt staff” (i.e., exempt from the requirement to serve the public interest rather than party interest). If their numbers took off under Trudeau Sr., they ballooned under Stephen Harper. Before Harper became prime minister, the federal government had 452 political staff, 68 of them in the Prime Minister’s Office itself. Harper boosted that to 549 political staffers, 94 in the PMO.
Under Harper the sheer number of exempt staff in Ottawa generated its own weather system of controversy, notably by the “boys in short pants,” as exempt staff were described by former MP Brent Rathgeber. He resigned from the Conservative caucus in 2013 due in part to the PMO’s interference in his job as MP for Edmonton-St. Albert.
In his 2014 book Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada, Rathgeber describes the political staff in the PMO as “young, energetic, ambitious and hyper-partisan.” “I have witnessed young, seemingly normal and well-adjusted college graduates enter the PMO and, within six months, morph into arrogant, self-absorbed zealots with an inflated sense of importance and ability,” writes Rathgeber. Political staff in the PMO sought to dictate not only the actions of MPs but those of Senators too. Harper’s chief of staff gave Senator Mike Duffy a cheque for $90,000 to reimburse the Senate for Duffy’s expenses.
Civil servants are honour-bound to serve all citizens and not the interests of any political party.
“Are we to believe that none of the other PMO minions questioned this highly unusual transaction?” writes Rathgeber. “Only in a culture of complete like-mindedness would it be possible for the legal and political liability of the situation to escape multiple minions.”
The role of political staff is now growing in Alberta. Alison Redford had 69 when she was premier. Jim Prentice had 71. Now Notley has 91. Political staff inhabit a grey area in our system of government. They are neither fish nor fowl, neither elected politicians nor professional civil servants, but they often do the work of both: launching partisan attacks while helping craft and execute public policy. For Notley, these people write her speeches, create her news releases, manage her schedule and bend her ear. They include chief of staff John Heaney, who earns a base salary of $295,000, and director of communications Cheryl Oates, who earns an annual salary of $150,000.
It would seem Alberta’s new government has indeed gone on something of a political-staff hiring spree. It now spends almost $1-million a year alone on “issues managers”—partisan political staff in the premier’s office who keep a look out for potential problems and opportunities. The issues management unit has a director, assistant director and six managers, whose annual salaries total $925,000.
Among their jobs is monitoring the scrums journalists hold with politicians, both government and opposition, in the hallways of the Legislature right before question period—even though government press secretaries monitor the very same scrums. But a spokesman for the premier’s office justifies the use of “issues managers.”
“We see it as an important role that all governments have in providing accurate information. And often what is said by politicians in opposition is inaccurate, it can be inaccurate, and in those cases it is important to correct the record,” said Matt Williamson, a former deputy director of communications for Premier Notley.
So, if the issue really is simply to get the “correct” information out to the public, why can’t the non-partisan civil service be called in to do the work rather than partisan staff? There are, after all, 27,000 Albertans in the civil service—the core group of senior officials, managers and office staff working in ministerial departments. Couldn’t they write the speeches, craft the news releases, book the trips and bend the premier’s ear?
Notley’s officials argue she has not gone on a hiring spree, that previous governments simply downplayed the number of their political staff. “Our number counts administrative positions that weren’t considered political by previous governments, even though they were doing political work,” said one government official.
In the case of previous governments, that political work involved booking travel, something seemingly innocuous. But in politics nothing is ever truly innocuous.
Take Redford, for example. Her office staff was directly or indirectly responsible for acquiescing to her travel demands, including the notorious $44,000 trip to attend the funeral of South African leader Nelson Mandela in 2013. A scathing 2014 report into Redford’s travel expenses by Alberta’s auditor general, Merwan Saher, concluded the premier’s office used government aircraft to fly Redford at public expense to three events that were purely partisan—PC fundraisers such as a premier’s dinner in Grande Prairie and a PC golf tournament in Lethbridge. The report raised questions about whether staff who book the premier’s flights could differentiate party interest from public interest.
Staff also tried to hide the real cost of international travel. One of Redford’s trips, to India and Switzerland, was publicly declared to cost $131,000, but the auditor general discovered the true price tag was closer to $450,000.
This was the era of the “aura of power,” a phrase coined by Saher to describe the unquestioned obedience expected by Redford. There seemed to be few or no checks and balances on mixing partisan politics with non-partisan governance. The lines were often blurred.
Rachel Notley came into power promising to end the PCs’ sense of entitlement. That entitlement included a political staff that would apparently stop at nothing to further the ends of the premier in particular and the governing party in general.
Less than a decade ago, Alberta cabinet ministers didn’t have politically partisan press secretaries. They had communications directors, who were part of the civil service and weren’t supposed to be partisan. Premier Lougheed formed the Public Affairs Bureau in the 1970s to coordinate government communications. When Ralph Klein became premier, he had the bureau report to his office alone. It became the most politicized department in Alberta’s government and was given the nickname “The Ministry of Truth.” In his book King Ralph, Don Martin wrote: “Although never acknowledged officially, Ministry of Truth staff were also known to provide the government with such helpful services as clogging the phone lines of talk shows with pro-Tory opinions and blitzing media polls with votes supporting Klein’s actions.”
Not surprisingly, the opposition parties demanded the PAB be disbanded.
Even the PC government of the day realized there was a problem. It had a solution up its sleeve, as outlined in a 2005 report by Ron Liepert, then a new MLA. He recommended the government “bolster the communications capacity within ministerial offices.” Translation: hire political press secretaries for the ministers (the premier already had one). “We found [communications directors] are in a no-win situation,” said Liepert in an interview in 2012. “Their job isn’t to be the spinmeister for the minister, and yet when you’re in elected office, it’s all about politics.”
The new press secretaries would be paid spinmeisters—political appointees working out of a minister’s office who would provide partisan comments to the media and the public.
Liepert’s suggestion was rejected by Klein and his successor Ed Stelmach, but not by Redford. In 2012, under her then chief of staff Stephen Carter, she set up a system where every minister had both a political press secretary and a non-partisan communications direction. “We had been asking non-partisan communications directors to be political and help us with political communications—and that wasn’t fair to the professional bureaucracy,” said Carter in a recent interview, as he looked back at the changes he implemented. “Bureaucrats… should not have to worry about politics to keep their job or retain their influence.”
On the plus side, Redford’s changes helped separate political messaging from government messaging. Communications directors could be free to concentrate on non-partisan policy issues, while the new press secretaries were able to focus on more partisan messaging. In that, the change made for a more accountable system. On the other hand, the change signalled a more aggressive stance in how the government would articulate its political messaging. Press secretaries could take off the gloves and have a go at critics of the government.
Carter said part of the push toward the hiring of press secretaries was a reflection of the pressures of the digital age, where the news cycle is never-ending. Just a few decades ago—before the advent of Facebook and Twitter—politicians had hours, perhaps even days, to figure out a response to an emerging crisis. Today, they must respond in minutes if not moments, said Carter. “Bureaucracy doesn’t move at the speed of light, politics does.”
It’d be easy to paint Carter’s comments as self-serving—a former political staffer defending the need for political staff. But as someone who has covered Alberta politics for 30 years, I believe he has a point. Civil servants are not known for their speed. That isn’t their job. Their job is to enact government policy in the best interests of the public, not the political party in power. And they are averse to risk.
Years ago one official described it to me like this: “The civil service has the engine of a Volkswagen and the brakes of a Rolls Royce.”
One senior political official with the Alberta government—who spoke on condition of anonymity—said members of the NDP’s political staff are trained in recognizing the difference between their jobs and civil servants’ jobs, and in how not to politicize the bureaucracy.
“Political staff must understand their role and its limits,” said the official, who pointed out political staff take the same oath of secrecy that covers civil servants. “We are not here to administer the government. A public servant needs to be administratively driven and politically sensitive, and a political staffer is politically driven and administratively sensitive. These are two different roles that must not be mixed.”
When asked how the public can be sure that political staff will not push bureaucrats too far—as we’ve seen happen in Alberta with Redford’s use of government aircraft, for example—the official said, in effect, “trust us.”
“We’re not perfect, (but) we do like the civil service and want them to be a professional civil service. We will not gut this public service; we will not pervert it; we will not abuse it. We are the NDP. We like the civil service.”
But one disturbing example of the new government muddling the distinction between civil servants and partisan political staff did occur in the months after the surprising 2015 prov-incial election, which saw more than four dozen rookie NDP MLAs head to the legislature. All of those MLAs needed to take over or set up new constituency offices, which are paid for by the legislative assembly. Staff in constituency offices are nonpartisan civil servants.
The office of the NDP caucus, however, placed ads for jobs describing a plum, partisan position. The ads even suggested constituency staff would report to NDP caucus director Jim Gurnett rather than to the local MLA.
After PC MLA Richard Starke complained about the “reprehensible and… clear violation of the non-partisan nature of the constituency office,” the job postings were changed to reflect their non-political status.
The opposition parties are not opposed to political staff. The fact is, all politicians like having them. Political staff are loyal to the leader. They are convenient scapegoats (press secretaries are often the first to be tossed overboard in the event of a communications scandal, whether guilty or not). Indeed, the opposition have their own cadre of partisan staff paid for with tax dollars—people who draft press releases attacking the government just as the government’s taxpayer-funded staff attack the opposition.
The Wildrose has 25 political appointees working in its caucus, the Progress Conservatives have 12, while the Liberals and Alberta Party each have three. The NDP caucus has 30 political staff positions devoted to helping that party’s backbenchers.
The political staff in caucus offices are different from ministry political staff in that their job is to help rank-and-file MLAs. Other than that, however, a political appointee in the Wildrose caucus is just as partisan as an appointee in an NDP cabinet minister’s office.
“I think a strong opposition and a strong government makes for, or can make for, better results and better outcomes for people,” said Wildrose leader Brian Jean. He said he hires “the best people that I possibly can to do the best work for us, to do the best research for us, to present all sides of the issues to us, not just to be ‘yes people.’”
But couldn’t that work be done by non-partisan civil servants rather than partisan staff?
Here, Jean has an interesting twist on the argument in favour of political staff. He argues that anyone, even a civil servant, put into a job that requires a partisan perspective will likely end up becoming partisan, not because they’d be strong-armed into it by politicians, but because it’s simply human nature. “You’re going to become partisan sooner or later because you believe in what those people are doing, whether it’s the staff, the team you’re in or the product that you’re putting out, because you believe in those principles,” he said. “So you may not be partisan—and many people aren’t at the start, and some people aren’t at the finish—but the truth is most people (eventually) are.”
Political staff are creating a blurring of the roles between what’s partisan and what’s non-partisan.
And again, there’s the lightning speed at which news moves in the digital age. Jean agrees that political staffers are arguably more attuned to the political needs of the politicians than cautious and non-partisan civil servants.
However, would civil servants—because they cannot be summarily fired—feel more secure in standing up to a politician, to speak truth to power? In the case of Redford’s travel, for example, would bureaucrats have been more likely to refuse her costly demands than political staff proved to be?
Her former chief of staff Stephen Carter says no, that he in fact was the one who stood up to her. “When I was chief of staff I stopped her from taking planes to places,” said Carter. “A woman in the office brought to my attention the fact that she was double-booking planes and we stopped the practice.”
However, Carter then acknowledges that his speaking truth to power may have led to his dismissal immediately after the 2012 election: “That might have been one of the reasons I was gone. Maybe. I don’t know why I was let go.”
Should we be concerned about the rise of political staff? Some political observers say we should. Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, believes political staff are creating a “blurring of the roles” between what’s partisan and what’s non-partisan, between the political appointees and the civil service.
He worries they are also usurping the power of cabinet ministers, particularly when the NDP government has so few seasoned MLAs. “I can understand the NDP relying on [them] because under the nature of our parliamentary system you have to select a cabinet [from] who is elected,” said Bratt. That means the government has had to resort to “bringing in behind-the-scenes political professionals, like your Brian Topps of the world… I see a danger. I see it as much more of an American-style political structure.”
Is there a solution? Probably not, unless political leaders want to give up their political appointees. And nobody from any political party seems willing to do that.
“I don’t know how it’s going to change, because the parties are in bed in this together,” said Bratt. “This problem has been emerging over multiple decades of multiple governments in multiple jurisdictions of different parties.”
Whether one thinks of the rise of political staff as a “problem” that blurs private and public interests or as a trend driven by digital-age politics, the issue concerns everyone. After all, we’re paying for them.
Graham Thomson is a long-time Edmonton Journal reporter and columnist. Thoughts on this story? firstname.lastname@example.org.