Code of conduct sought for 'amoral' political aides; Ministerial staffers should not be allowed to give orders to public servants: experts
The Ottawa Citizen
16 February 2010
A1 / FRONT
Copyright © 2010 Ottawa Citizen
Some of Canada's most-respected public policy experts say it is time to rein in the hundreds of assistants to cabinet ministers who roam Parliament Hill with no training and no accountability to anyone but their political bosses. Among the suggestions for these aides are education in how government works and a code of conduct that forbids them from giving orders to bureaucrats and makes ministers responsible for their staff's actions.
A political aide to a former Public Works minister who blocked the release of a sensitive report under the
Access to Information Act prompted the outrage and resurrected calls for a code of conduct.
"A code would help dispel the image of political staff as amoral political warriors and put exempt staff on an equal footing with the public service," said Thomas Axworthy in a study for the Centre for the Study of
Axworthy, who was a principal secretary to Pierre Trudeau, argues the incident is symptomatic of an accountability crisis that's crippling the federal government, despite the passage of the Harper government's much trumpeted Federal Accountability Act more than three years ago.
In his report on the sponsorship scandal, Justice John Gomery singled out ministerial aides for scrutiny and said their roles should be clarified in a code and the jobs professionalized. Gomery's proposals were never implemented. In late 2008, there were more than 600 ministerial aides working for the Prime Minister's
Office, ministers and secretaries of state.
"It's time to define the role of exempt staff and impose some prescription on what they do and how they do it," said Donald Savoie, the University of Moncton professor who headed Gomery's research team.
"Government has become too complex, especially with access to information. We need to get a handle on them so they aren't loose cannons flying around issuing orders without someone living with the consequences. It's not the public service's fault. I think they are the victims."
In the recent incident, bureaucrats were set to release a report on the performance of the government's real estate portfolio to the Canadian Press when Sebastien Togneri, an aide to then Public Works Minister
Christian Paradis, e-mailed public servants asking them to block the release. The department eventually turned over a redacted version of the report, nearly three months after the legal deadline to do so.
What has surprised experts is that Paradis didn't reprimand, fire or sanction Togneri for meddling in the bureaucracy's job. Nor did Paradis himself take responsibility and offer to resign. In fact, the minister distanced himself from his aide's actions, claiming he knew nothing about it, and then lauded him as an employee with "exemplary parliamentary skills" that he wanted to keep in his new job at Natural Resources.
"No minister should be able to offload and say that is my staff who did that so you can't blame me," said
Some say the issue is further complicated by a growing trend in the Harper government of ministerial staffers whose first loyalty is to the PMO rather than their ministers. In Canada's system, ministers are responsible and accountable for the actions of their staff. Political staffers aren't supposed to direct the public service -- unless ordered by the minister.
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Gomery drove that home when he concluded former prime minister Jean Chrétien bore responsibility for the sponsorship scandal because his chief of staff meddled with the bureaucracy.
Officials in the Prime Minister Harper's office, realizing the seriousness of Togneri's actions, directed that