Code of conduct needed for 'amoral' political aides

'Amoral political warriors' must not have equal status with public service employees.

Ottawa (17 Feb. 2010) - A code of conduct is needed to reign in a burgeoning cadre of political aides who roam Parliament Hill with no loyalty to anyone but their political masters, suggests a study by the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD).

By one recent count more than 600 ministerial aides were on the payroll of the prime minister's office, various Conservative ministries and secretaries of state.

The code should require aides to be educated on the limits of their role and to forbid them from giving orders to bureaucrats, the study suggests. It also proposes that ministers be forced to account for the actions of their aides.

"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," says Thomas Axworthy, author of the CSD study.

A former principal secretary to Pierre Trudeau, Axworthy says the problem has grown worse since Conservatives took power under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, despite passage of the much trumpeted but ineffective Federal Accountability Act.

Axworthy's views and those of other experts in federal policy were published this week in a front-page report by the Ottawa Citizen. The report follows an uproar over a political aide who recently blocked release of a sensitive report under the Access to Information Act.

The Gomery Report on the sponsorship scandal included recommendations calling for a code of conduct for aides. However, no action has been taken by Harper or his cabinet.

"It's time to define the role of exempt staff and impose some prescription on what they do and how they do it," argues Donald Savoie, a 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 (aides) 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."

The recent incident of political interference involved Sebastien Togneri, an aide to Christian Paradis, then public works minister.

Togneri caused an uproar by instructing public employees to block release of a report on the government's real estate portfolio. A heavily redacted version was eventually released after a storm of critical news coverage. However, no action was taken to reprimand or fire Togneri and Paradis refused to accept responsibility for the incident.
 
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