Creating a more ethical and accountable Ottawa was a key differentiation strategy for the Conservative Party of Canada under party leader Stephen Harper during the 2006 federal election.

The Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin received a great deal of negative public and media attention for a series of ethical missteps stemming from the Auditor General’s 2004 report on the sponsorship scandal, and extending through to the conclusion of the Gomery Commission (2005-06).

In the period leading up to the 2006 election while in opposition the Conservative Party conducted extensive voter research on the issues of accountability and integrity. The results indicated that the public was concerned about ethics in Ottawa, and that a promise to do business differently could swing potential voters to support the Conservatives.

Further, the accountability issue played very well with the Conservative base. Many long-time Conservative supporters believed there were lobbyists in Ottawa who were too closely tied to Martin. The Gomery Commission had become required daily viewing in Quebec, where the Conservatives needed to win seats to gain power. Stephen Harper had never been in government and had no record to defend, so it made sense for the Conservatives to try and force the Liberals to talk about their ethical problems on a daily basis.

To be fair, the Conservatives were not the only party that focused on ethics and integrity. Accountability became politicized during the campaign. All five political parties made commitments to improve accountability as part of their blueprint to either win or maintain power. But Harper was best able to make the case against the Liberal Party with the Canadian electorate.

As he wrote in his book Winning Power: Canadian Campaigning in the Twenty-First Century, University of Calgary professor emeritus and former Harper adviser Tom Flanagan noted how the Conservatives focused on the accountability issue “because that seemed to capture the mood of the electorate.”

The Conservatives were elected with a minority government in January 2006, and Harper and his transition team quickly went to work creating plans on how to implement his five campaign priorities. Legislation that included new rules on accountability was on the top of that list.

The Federal Accountability Act (FAA) was the Harper government’s first piece of legislation in 2006. Implementing it quickly allowed the government to check a “done” box on a campaign deliverable, which was very important in a minority situation. The short-term political usefulness of the FAA was clear.

More broadly, it was meant to promote better behaviour in both the political and the public service offices across the federal government. It also gave the government and the courts more tools to punish bad behaviour.

While many of the Harper government’s campaign promises were reflected in the first draft of the legislation, the House of Commons and the Senate made numerous amendments (more than 150 in the case of the Senate) that considerably broadened the scope of the Bill. If the FAA was intended to foster and encourage a new attitude in Ottawa, by the time it received Royal assent, it had become a monstrous list of heavy-handed rules and directives.

One of the most onerous areas within the legislation dealt with political staff. Minister’s offices are staffed by “exempt” staffers. These are individuals who receive all the benefits of being public servants (such as dental benefits and a pension plan) but are exempt from the job security enjoyed by the rest of the federal civil service. Political staffers can be fired or can leave their posts in the same manner as much of the private sector workforce – instantly.

The FAA removed the possibility for political staffers (and senior bureaucrats) to immediately jump from their federal jobs into the private sector. The Conservatives wanted to ensure that individuals did not take up political work solely with the intent of taking advantage of their inside knowledge and personal relationships. A five-year post-employment ban was slapped on exempt staffers. Officers of Parliament such as the ethics commissioner were given the power to decide the fate of a political staffer with a veto over a potential job after the staffer had left (or was fired from) political office. The FAA also removed the priority access that political staffers had to public service jobs.

In my opinion, the five-year ban has had a very negative long-term impact on Canadian politics. The FAA has virtually eliminated the ability of elected officials to attract the best and the brightest to Ottawa to support them in their offices and in their decision-making.

The FAA has virtually eliminated the ability of elected officials to attract the best and the brightest to Ottawa.

The best political staffers are the ones who consider politics as one part of an overall, long-term employment plan. They come into politics early, leave for the private or not-for-profit sectors, and then return years later, sadder but wiser, having learned new management and life lessons.

They begin, for the most part, as young partisans whose work experience is limited to volunteering or campaigning. They have virtually no experience dealing with complex policies, organizations (such as a federal department) or decisions.

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In the federal government political staffers generally fall into two classes – those at the top of the food chain, such as chiefs of staff in ministers’ offices, and those at the bottom, lowly worker bees in roles such as political assistant or volunteer. There is virtually no middle management in politics.

Chiefs of staff in ministers’ offices can be well paid, depending on how ministers choose to spend their budgets. Despite the unpredictable nature of politics and the limitations imposed by the FAA, a chief’s salary can attract a wide group of potential candidates.

Assistants, on the other hand, are poorly paid. They usually start as a young and happy lot – happy to have their first real jobs, happy to debate political minutiae 24/7 and, most of all, happy to be very close to the most powerful offices in the country. But soon enough they realize that their pay and their long-term job prospects compare very poorly with those in the public and private sectors. The “happy warrior” is a rare breed in politics.

There is virtually no on-the-job training in a minister’s office, which is why it is critically important for elected officials to try and attract staff with work experience from Parliament Hill. Political parties are not supposed to interfere with the day-to-day operations of government, so they do not provide management training. And, for various reasons, the civil service has absolutely no interest in or incentive for training political staff.

When offered the chance to work in a political office, the first question politically savvy individuals who work outside politics (or even recruiting firms) ask is whether the five-year ban will apply to them. They understand now, after a decade under the FAA, that this ban would severely limit their ability to find a job after politics.

In retrospect, a prudent political party with an eye on keeping power should have created and encouraged a system where potential staffers are able to broaden their experience outside Parliament Hill. The scope of the FAA was too wide and unruly. Almost all the political effort, including that by opposition parties, was put into creating rules rather than developing skills. Eventually, the FAA created a unique and insular silo for political staff.

A prudent political party with an eye on keeping power should have created and encouraged a system where potential staffers are able to broaden their experience outside Parliament Hill.

The class of political support staff created by the FAA is too young and inexperienced to provide good advice to the elected officials they serve. There are no mentors who have the benefit of experience, because the FAA discourages their entry into the system, while simultaneously encouraging young employees to make a quick exit and wait out their post-employment five-year ban. A former senator once referred to this new political class as “kids in short pants.” By limiting recruitment, the FAA also limited the government’s ability to enact good policies or to bring about change (even if it had a mandate from an election to do so).

I also believe another, if unintended, effect of the FAA is to limit democracy. With the influx of younger, more inexperienced staff, the bulk of the government’s corporate memory now rests almost exclusively with the civil service. As such, decisions and advice on how to move forward become transactions, rather than vigorous debates. On top of this, poorly trained political staff don’t have the gravitas or analytical ability to push the civil service to do things differently on important files.

An unfortunate side effect of the FAA that merits study is the practice among ministers of selecting support staff from the civil service. One of the fastest ways to bypass any employment awkwardness created by the FAA is to ask the civil service to send someone on an interim basis to sit at a political desk. Often that person stays on for months. This staffing strategy is an easy but exceptionally poor practice that serves only to reinforce convenience and does not improve quality.

If you believe the Federal Accountability Act’s purpose was predominantly political, you could argue it was a success. It certainly helped the Harper government win power in 2006, and it ushered in a decade of power for the Conservatives.

However, the FAA’s political usefulness has worn thin. It is time to take a broader view of staffing on Parliament Hill. Political parties need to give some thought and effort to what kind of organization they want to build, not to just win power. Over time the principles espoused by the FAA limited the Harper government’s ability to reinvigorate its staff and bring new ideas on management practices to govern the country. Now it is up to the new government to decide if its principles are worth saving.

This article is part of The Federal Accountability Act: Ten Years Later special feature.


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Michele Austin
Michele Austin served twice as a chief of staff under Stephen Harper’s government. She is now a senior adviser at Summa Strategies.

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