Useful editorial in the Times Colonist today on the big increases in salary scales for political staffers in the Christy Clark government.
Noteworthy, for example, that salaries for ministerial assistants - sorry, deputy chiefs of staff, as they are now called - have increased 53 per cent since 2003, while the average British Columbian has seen a 28-per-cent wage increase. (The premier’s pay is up 60 per cent.) The top pay for minister's aides is now $102,000.
The grandiose new job title is alarming in itself. Ministerial assistants - usually one or two per minister - are support staff. The main responsibility is making the minister look good and keeping him or her on top of the ministry. The principal qualification is effective service to the party in power - active Young Liberals and New Democrats, keen campaign workers and volunteers. A few have broader work experience, but not many.
The Liberal government, for example, just gave one of the new chief of staff jobs to the party’s defeated candidate in North Island. His resume lists no work experience beyond a co-op stint in a paper mill.
‘Chief of staff’ also suggests some considerable responsibility.
But the chief of staff for Teresa Wat, minister of international trade, the Asia-Pacific strategy and multiculturalism, supervises one administrative support person. He's a Young Liberal with a work history as a government political appointee. (Nothing wrong with that, of course, for partisans of any party. Politics can be a career choice.)
It’s just a title, some might say.
But if a ministerial assistant calls a business, or government employees, they assume he or she is seeking information or action on behalf of the minister, but that they are dealing with an assistant. If necessary, they will ask to hear directly from the minister.
But a chief of staff - even if there is only one staff - sounds rather grander. Maybe people won’t ask. And the people with the new titles can’t help but have an inflated sense of their own importance.
When Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber quit the federal Conservative caucus this month, he complained political staff in Stephen Harper’s office ran roughshod over MPs, telling them what questions to ask in committees and what to say and to vote “like trained seals.” Those are the federal equivalents to the new provincial chiefs of staff. And his complaints suggests the risk in elevating the power of political staff.
In my past days in the Press Gallery, we joked with ministerial assistants about their roles as ‘dog walkers,’ accompanying the minister to the caucus and legislative chamber each day, file in hand and earnest expression firmly in place, as if even the one-minute walk from the office could not be wasted. (We also joked that some ministers simply couldn’t find the caucus room without help.)
Practically, it’s an important political job. Ministerial assistants keep the minister informed and briefed, help decide who gets access and schedule the days. They are valuable.
But the elevation of ministerial assistants to chiefs of staff implicitly redefines their roles and increases their authority. And increasing one person’s authority inevitably means diminishing someone else’s - in this case, likely the people actually elected to govern.