Why the salaries of staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office matter

PMO staffer salaries always come down to politics. But the talk around Trudeau’s staffers’ pay has the potential to cause a problem.

<p>Chief of staff Katie Telford, left, and chief advisor Gerald Butts look on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers his opening remarks during the Meeting of First Ministers in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. </p>

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

“Hey Andrew, want to come back and work for the prime minister?”

Those words, or something similar, spoken in November 2008 by Kory Teneycke—Stephen Harper’s director of communications at the time—lit me up like a Christmas tree. Work in the Prime Minister’s Office? For the Prime Minister? I nearly fainted.

Kory had been my boss during my first job in politics, where I toiled as a writer in the Conservative Party’s research office on Parliament Hill. I joined on a $40,000 salary, moving up from Toronto in March 2006 when “Canada’s New Government” was desperate for staff.

How did I know they were desperate? I had zero political experience—only a second-hand introduction to government through Goldy Hyder, a Conservative pundit. I was 30, and had struggled for years in Toronto getting a writing career off the ground. The salary was a godsend for this nobody. A U-Haul was packed, and the adventure began.

After two years I left the research office for a job at Hill & Knowlton (now H+K Strategies), where the pay was better and the work more stable than that of a minority government. And now I was getting the call to come work in the fabled “Centre.”

The answer was always going to be “yes,” but it took a few minutes for me to spit out a few basic questions about the gig. I started with: “What would I be doing?”

“Working in the press office,” Kory replied. Press? I had read nothing but stories of acrimony between the press and Harper’s PMO. And they wanted me? Did nobody else want the job?

The salary discussion was an afterthought. Kory asked what I was on at H+K, I gave myself a slight raise, and it was over. I started as a deputy press secretary on $100,000 per year.

That’s a lot of money, especially for a nobody. More than the vast majority of Canadians earn. It didn’t matter that, if you cut it by hours worked—which is to say, all waking hours—it didn’t add up to much more than minimum wage. (I did the math more than once.) It was my salary for the majority of my five years in Harper’s office. I was subsequently promoted to associate director of communications in September 2011, which came with a raise, and then to director of communications, where my salary was, if memory serves, $132,500.

I wasn’t doing it for the money. Nobody does. I was doing it because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in a job that mattered.

What people who work for the prime minister get paid is once again in the news because of a report on the salaries being offered by Justin Trudeau’s office. After the initial report said 12 staffers were being paid more than $150,000 per year, the Privy Council Office is now saying—two days later—that fewer than 10 staffers are being paid that amount, with one suggested to be in the $300,000-plus range; another 14 are paid between $100,000 and $150,000.

If this has the slight whiff of deja vu, it’s because this is the second run of stories for the PMO on costs, after the moving expenses for Trudeau’s top two aides—chief of staff Katie Telford and principal secretary Gerry Butts—cost $200,000.

Before you ask, I can’t honestly say how this compares with Harper’s office. I can only say a couple of my 23 direct reports (representing a quarter of the PMO) made more than $100,000, despite all of them working insane hours in important jobs. And while the Liberals say that the Harper PMO paid almost $325,000 in relocation expenses for 29 staffers—I was not offered, nor asked, for moving expenses—that was over the course of nine years. Based on that, it would appear the Trudeau PMO is more generous.

But what I can say for certain is that the factors governing PMO pay are political.

For us, they began to change once the bottom fell out of the global economy in 2008-09. At first, as the government went into hyperactive deficit-spending mode, the size of our office grew. A couple of snotty media stories later, the size of the office shrank somewhat, and when the government later went into deficit-reduction mode, some staff were cut and all salaries for political staff across government were nailed to the floor.

To repeat: these were political decisions, to reflect the times. A government loses touch with the electorate at its peril, especially in times of economic uncertainty or belt-tightening. But it’s tricky to judge; most people who buzz about government professionally (e.g. media, academics, and lobbyists) don’t begrudge good money to those in politics—but the same can’t be said for the “average” voter who often makes a fraction of that money.

Trudeau’s salary decisions are equally political, even if he defends them in bureaucratese. He’s paying them because he thinks the public will bear it. I don’t imagine the prime minister was desperate for staff, after all: Most of his top-level people are longtime Liberal political operatives, not corporate or legal superstars who had to be crowbarred out of jobs with big salaries (with the exception, perhaps, of Butts). They would do it for free, as long as it meant undoing Stephen Harper’s legacy.

Okay, nobody works for free—but nor does anyone expect, or need, government to match the private sector. Serving in government at the political level is a unique opportunity that pays for itself in other ways. It’s a chance to help your fellow citizens; it’s a chance to leave your mark—however small—on the country. The financial reward, if you’re so inclined, can come after, when you take your next gig. Of course, the Harper government took some of that away by banning lobbying for five years after leaving government, but for a top-flight political staffer, the world remains an oyster all the same.

The money being paid staffers also reflects the appearance of a gusher of public spending in the early Trudeau era. When deficits near $30 billion per year, what’s a dozen big salaries for the people who make the big decisions?

The salary issue will only haunt the Trudeau Liberals if the opposition can make it about bigger trends. The ancient knock is that Liberals like to take care of their friends, as the recent botched appointment of Madeleine Meilleur again proved. The salary bit feeds this narrative too.

An even more ancient trope is that Liberals can’t be trusted with the public purse. Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin reversed that trend in the 1990s in order to clean up the huge rise in spending that began under Pierre Trudeau.

On the other hand, the solution for the Liberals is easy. If Trudeau ever gets serious about getting rid of his deficit mess, there will be a couple of easy cuts to make in his office to set the example. But if the Conservatives do make the accusation stick, as part of a wider narrative, the pain will be worth more than a few thousand dollars. It will be the incalculable pain of watching someone else govern the country.

Andrew MacDougall is a London-based columnist and commentator. He was a director of communications to Stephen Harper.