Thursday, June 11, 2009

The questionable talents of political staffers...

I've been watching with great interest the ongoing Lisa Raitt controversies out of Ottawa, plus the E-health spending scandals out of Queen's Park. As a former political staffer, the Raitt affair has been quite a reminder of the perils faced by political staffers who screw up. On that, former Raitt communications director Jasmine MacDonnell (pictured behind Lisa Raitt) has to take the cake for biggest screw-ups in the shortest amount of time. Due to MacDonnell's negligence, her former boss has been publicly humiliated and the government has suffered greatly in the short term.

You might ask: how did someone so forgetful ascend so quickly and at such a young age to such a senior position in the office of one of the most powerful cabinet ministers in Ottawa? As anyone who's worked in the political back rooms knows, it was likely through personal connections and networking. Somebody somewhere, perhaps in the Prime Minister's office, liked MacDonnell enough to approve her hiring for the job she lost last week. My experience at Queen's Park showed that every senior staffer in ministers' offices had to be approved by the centre as well.

Forget talent, experience, education, all of those things we tell our children they need to succeed in their chosen profession. All politics demands of those who seek powerful, high-paying positions is knowing the right person at the right time. I don't know of any other profession (if you can call working in the political back rooms a profession) where individuals with little talent or ability can use personal connections and rise so rapidly so fast. These are the folks who surround the most powerful people in our society! It's scary.

Hence, we shouldn't be surprised when a political staffer screws up so badly as MacDonnell has done. In truth, these kinds of screw-ups happen all the time. They just rarely cause political headaches this big.

I got into politics because I foolishly wanted to fight for a better province, because I had values I wanted to see implemented into government policy. I first started in opposition at Queen's Park in 1999, inspired by my dislike for Mike Harris's far right agenda. For four years, we opposition Liberals, both elected and unelected, were on a mission: to discredit the government and bring a better government to power. Dalton McGuinty's 2003 election platform was a perfect antidote to the Harris/Eves years and the public rightly agreed.

However, soon after the 2003 election, I noticed a distinct change in many of my young colleagues. While many colleagues fought for position, title and bigger pay brackets, I chose to try to follow my heart, going to work for the Parliamentary Secretary in charge of Democratic Renewal. I would quickly become painfully aware of my own naivete as it was soon obvious that most of Dalton McGuinty's promises with respect to democratic renewal (and many others) were never going to be implemented.

I learned that the qualities needed for success and happiness in the political back rooms were not principles or a desire to do what's right for the people; good political staffers need to be excellent liars, generally amoral and constant "players". Excellent organizational skills and an ability to ignore things that offend you are also helpful. If you want to see a particular policy implemented, you're in for trouble. Compromise is the name of the game in politics, as we know. Even cabinet ministers have to put their principles aside if they're not going to be driven mad by the system.

I don't mean to paint all political staffers with the same brush. There are many with good values who are in it for the right reasons; they simply have a much higher tolerance for the bullshit game of politics than I. I left the political world because I knew I was not particularly talented at playing the "game", and I had many other dreams (like screenwriting) that I had been neglecting. So I moved on.

It's strange years later reading articles about former colleagues I used to know as humble and well-meaning in opposition, who now consider themselves worth $330 per hour for work of little discernible value. Me, I had no desire to milk my connections for all they were worth. I have no interest in lobbying for corporations or causes I don't believe in.

I do feel badly for Jasmine MacDonnell. More than likely, she's got few interests outside politics, so it will be hard for her to move on from this. What political boss or any high-powered boss would want to hire someone after those mistakes?

In the real world, it takes many years of hard work to develop one's skills and abilities so that when you do attain a high ranking position in your chosen field, you've already learned how to avoid the pitfalls that can screw up one's career. Political staffers, who probably volunteered on someone's campaign, learned how to schmooze well and then suddenly found themselves with a salary of $100,000 at age 27 following a cabinet minister around the country, unable to turn off a tape recorder, rarely have that kind of background experience.

1 comment:

penlan said...

Excellent post & thanks for the insight on how things work on the inside. It does add, unfortunately, to the cynicism that most people feel about politicians because it's true. Desire for power & money corrupts from the lowest to the highest.

OT. A belated congrats on winning the award for your film!