Organizing the halls of power: federal parliamentary staffers and members of parliament's offices.

Author:Dickin, Daniel

This article attempts to define the work of federal parliamentarians' staffers so that their position, responsibilities, and ultimately their role can be better understood by parliamentary observers and the public at large. The author first discusses the role of an MP's staff member in order to build a job description of common tasks and responsibilities. Then he explores and defines some possible organizational structures of Members of Parliament's offices based on his own observations.

Much has been written about the roles of Members of Parliament and the operations of Canada's Parliament in order to better understand how Canada is governed. Tragedy in the Commons, for example, endeavored to conduct "exit interviews" with Members of Parliament to discuss how they experienced elections, governing, party politics, dealing with constituents' issues, and ultimately defeat or retirement from public life. But while the role of Members of Parliaments may be becoming more well known, the same cannot be said for their right-hand men and women: Canada's political staffers.

Surprisingly little is publicly known or discussed about staffers. The varied nature of their work in support of Members of Parliament--who are much more accessible to the media and the public--provides a wide degree of latitude in defining what a staffer does. At best, this means a staffer's job is shrouded in a degree of mystery. At worst, it can lead to a full-on slandering of a group of committed public servants. Recent years have seen the pejorative moniker "the boys in short pants" (1) used to describe some staffers while others have been labeled "ruthless, cutthroat psychopaths." (2) Such negative statements come from a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the role of staffers.

This essay attempts to define what staffers do so that their position, responsibilities, and ultimate role can be better understood by parliamentary observers and the public at large. First, I will discuss the role of an MP's staff member in order to build a job description of common tasks and responsibilities. Second, I will explore and define some possible organizational structures of Members of Parliament's offices. This essay should be understood as one person's observations of how staffers and offices operate. It cannot be applied as a one-size-fits-all doctrine, since each Member of Parliament is given wide latitude to organize an office as he or she sees fit. There also may be common trends and differences between offices of the same political party and between different political parties or between federal and provincial staffers. While those trends and differences are not the subject of this essay, I welcome submissions from other staffers on these same topics to expand our collective knowledge. This essay will contribute to the public's understanding of who staffers are, what they do, and how their office structures them to operate within Canada's Parliamentary government.

Part One: The Role of MP's staff

Generally speaking, there are three types of staffers: staffers in an MP's constituency office, ministerial staffers, and staffers in an MP's Ottawa office. Much has already been written about the work done by constituency staffers thanks to Peter MacLeod's two-year research study on the topic. (3) Likewise, Ian Brodie has written of the job descriptions and necessities of ministerial staffers, clarifying their role in navigating the bureaucracy and advising and serving their minister. (4) The roles of these two types of staffers are relatively well known, but the same cannot be said for an MP's Ottawa staffers. While I do touch on constituency staffers' work and how they are positioned in a hierarchy in part two, the focus of this paper is Members of Parliament's Ottawa office staffers (referred to here as "Parliamentary staffers" or "Ottawa staffers"). Together these three essays can be used to begin to paint a broader picture of staffers.


Parliamentary staffers are some of Canada's most important, influential, committed, and hardestworking public servants. Jenni Byrne, a senior adviser and organizer to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was known as "the other woman behind Harper" (5) (the first of course being his wife Laureen), and Gerry Butts, a senior adviser and long-time friend to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has been called "Prime Minister Butts" for the strong gatekeeping influence he exerts over Trudeau and his office. (6) But despite their significant influence and incredible workload, there are hundreds of other staffers whose roles are not well known or discussed. This section focuses on the hiring, training, and working conditions of staffers.

The Need For a Staffer

Members of Parliament did not always have staff. As Peter MacLeod notes, before cheap air travel, the Parliamentary calendar revolved around the agricultural cycle: in the fall MPs would take the train from their constituencies to Ottawa, stay in Ottawa for the winter, and spend the majority of the spring, summer, and part of the fall back in their constituencies. (7) MPs would speak directly with their constituents, personally respond to letters and phone calls, and coordinate their own schedules. Prior to 1968, a secretarial pool would dispatch a secretary to assist an MP for a few days at a time, however they were laid off during periods of recess and dissolution. (8) In 1958, secretaries were dedicated to individual MPs, and a decade later the MP was authorized to hire one fulltime secretary. In 1974, a second full-time secretary was authorized and some constituency offices were created. By the 1999-2000 fiscal year, an MP was given a budget of $190,000 for the purpose of staffing his or her office. Today an MP may have about six to eight staffers between their Ottawa and constituency offices.

The introduction and proliferation of political staffers mirrors the increasing size and responsibility of the federal government and the explosion of mass and electronic media. The election of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1968 marked a significant milestone for large, activist, interventionist governments; the growth of these governments strongly correlates with the increase...

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