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Diminishing Economic Value of a Political Career

By Scott Proudfoot

Some have described Justin Trudeau's Senate Gambit as a publicity stunt devoid of serious meaning. They have it wrong.

First, it has meaning if Mr. Trudeau becomes Prime Minister. The way in which Senators are selected will change.

Second, it has meaning if the governing Tories find it harder to make partisan Senate appointments in the future.

Up to now, Prime Ministers of the day have appointed party loyalists to the Senate. A fig leaf is added by including a few notable non-partisan Canadians. This practice has been accepted, if not admired, by the public.

But, public sentiment can move in a non-linear fashion. If public attitudes have hardened against partisan Senate appointments, then Mr. Trudeau is making a virtue of a necessity by pre-emptively ridding himself of the poisoned chalice of future Senate appointments.

In so doing, he is relinquishing the most valuable piece of patronage real-estate available to a Canadian Prime Minister.

If coupled with actions taken by the Harper Government, then there are far fewer employment options for politicos who leave government service or are pushed out by the electorate. The inevitable result is that:

Running for office and working for a politician has become more of a dead-end career choice.

This affects who runs for office; the leverage Prime Minister’s have over their caucus; and how political parties evolve in the future.

To compare and contrast how different today is from the recent past, just go back a few decades to Mr. Trudeau’s father and consider the role of patronage in party affairs.

Then & Now 

When elected in 1968, the elder Trudeau inherited a well-oiled patronage machine.

In addition to naming Ministers, Senator and Deputy Ministers and their Assistants, the Prime Minister and his ministers had responsibility for 3100 Order in Council Appointments. These were full and part-time appointments at Crown Corporations, Agencies and Quasi-Judicial bodies.  The process was administered by officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and it was non-transparent.

That was just the tip of the patronage iceberg.

Election Canada and Statistics Canada enumeration jobs were reserved for Liberal rank and file workers.  Departmental contract list for lawyers, accountants, and architects were provided by the party. All advertising and polling contracts were under the direct control of Ministers.

Ministerial staff, after three years, could be transferred to a public service job.

A certain number of diplomatic and consular posts were assumed for the Prime Minister’s appointees.

Liberal Party operatives of that era were masters of ‘elite cooption’.  They targeted leaders of minority groups and key stakeholder groups whose support they coveted.  They enticed them with
government grants and jobs to obtain their support.  Gain the support of the leaders and they will bring in the votes of the followers.

Patronage was used in a sophisticated way to spread the party’s tentacles throughout Canadian society.  The downside effect: many unqualified Liberal party supporters in public sector jobs which led to both embarrassment and scandal.

This system of patronage, in part, was fuelled by government overspending.  In the eighties and nineties, successive waves of government cut-backs eliminated many patronage positions.  Freedom of Information made it harder for Ministers to play so fast and loose with public monies. It became less acceptable to interfere directly in government programs. Starting with Prime Minister Mulroney, there were reforms to make the appointment process more transparent and appointees qualified for the jobs filled.

Patronage was not eliminated but it was more contained and defined by a more legitimate process. At the same time that patronage was being constrained, there were more MPs and ministerial staffers around because of the expansion of jobs in the legislative branch. The declining level of post-political job opportunities was barely noticed because of one significant development. 

The emergence and growth of the lobbying industry created alternative jobs for ex-politicos. 

Not everyone who works in politics is interested in a public sector sinecure.  Lobbyists had always existed but it was the sheer explosion of the number of those jobs that was significant.

According to the Federal Commissioner of Lobbying, there were 5,256 active registered federal lobbyists in 2013. 783 were consultant lobbyists; 1,861 were in-house corporate lobbyists; and 2,612 were lobbyists for associations and non-profits.  Not all those 5,000+ jobs are held by ex- politicos but quite a few are.

The lobbying industry became the place where ex-politicos took their parliamentary and government experience and put it to work. By the nineties, the government relations industry became a larger source of employment than the patronage system had been at the height of the Mr. Trudeau’s time in power

All this changed when the Harper Government won power. 

  • It eliminated the slotting of political staffers into the public services after three years in a minister's office.

Not everyone working for a minister was interested in a career in the public service but some went in that direction. Generally, it was good deal for both sides. Despite co-habitation, the public service's understanding of politics and Parliament is seriously deficient. They take the wrong stuff too seriously and right stuff not seriously enough.  Bringing in young people with political experience is a good thing. The public service needs all the talent it can find.

The suspicion that ex-ministerial staffers would act in a partisan fashion has seldom materialized. Any political staffer entering the public service faces a long informal period of probation.  Being political is a public-service career-killer.  The vast majority put their head down and became proper, hard-working public servants. However, the appointment of a few bad apples during the Chretien Government brought the practice into disrepute.  The Harper government decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • It legislated a five-year restriction on lobbying for Designated Public Office Holders.              

Anything commercially relevant learned in a Minister's office is on the street in six months or less. After that, a ban on lobbying is about political optics. The Harper Government found the 'revolving door' between ministers’ office and the lobbying industry unseemly so they decided to stop it totally. A five-year ban is a clear message to find another line of work on leaving government.  Initially, the ban was limited to Ministers, their staff and senior public officials.  Then it was extended to all Members of Parliament although back-bench and opposition MPs have no direct input into departmental policy.
If coupled with less access to patronage appointments, then there are fewer post-political employment options for Cabinets Ministers, their staff and MPs.

Working for a Minister or becoming an MP is an exciting job but also transient. Turnover in the Canadian Parliament averages 37% - about one third is due to voluntary retirement, the rest electoral defeat. If there is a big shift such as 1984 and 1993, more ex- MPs are on the street looking for work. When Ministers and MPs go out the door, their staffs go with them.

These changes do not affect everyone equally. Retired Public Servants can find consulting work in Government. Communications staff in the PMO and Minsters’ offices can transition to the private sector.  Some MPs return to the law; work the rust off; and rebuild a practice.  Some MPs have a farm and, like Cincinnatus, they will return to the plow.

But, after being a minister or MP, not everyone can or wants to go back to their former life.  Plus, an increasing number of politicians and staffers lack experience outside politics.

Usually, a career advances when one job builds on the experience of the previous one.  Politicos used to have a range of post-political employment options. Now, there are fewer lifeboats and, mostly, they are reserved for the top table. The majority of MPs and staffers face a long swim to shore when their ship hits the eventual electoral reef.

So What?

The obvious question is: So what?

Politicians are paid well and well-pensioned. Public sympathy is not aroused by a lack of patronage appointments.  A sharply diminished supply of talent to fill government relations jobs will not register as a matter of public concern.

In many respects, this trend does feel like some sort of progress. We hardly wish to return to the practices of Mr. Trudeau's father.

After all, now people will be drawn to political life for the right reasons - not because they hope to advance their career in some way. Perhaps, this will make politics better?

This is one possible outcome. Good people of conviction have always run for Parliament.  Maybe there will be more of them!

However, that presupposes a rosy view of human nature, how power works and how political parties prosper!

Consider the possible impact on how a Prime Minister manages their Cabinet and Caucus.

The Closed Shop

Prime Ministers in Canada's parliamentary system have an acute human resources constraint that is under-appreciated.

When elected, a Prime Minister assigns responsibility for the management of approximately $250 billion dollars managed by 25 federal departments with an amazingly diverse range of responsibilities. In an ideal world, the Prime Minister would scour the country to recruit the most experienced, expert and competent individuals possible.

A US President has that option.  A Canadian Prime Minister does not. He or she deals with a 'closed shop' and must select Ministers from Parliament.

The choice is not made from the best 308 Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. It can't even be the best MPs in the government caucus.  Regional balance dictates some MPs become Ministers who otherwise wouldn't make the cut. Most new Ministers will not have managed any large entity.  Many have not managed anything more complex than their political career.  The talent pool available to a Prime Minister for any Cabinet is thin.

Hence, the pattern of successive Prime Ministers concentrating power in their own office and with a handful of senior Ministers. Like a hockey coach going to their top lines in key games, successive PMs 'shorten their bench', using a smaller number of reliable Ministers to do the heavy lifting.

The other Cabinet Ministers are on a shorter lease.  Their main charge is to do departmental PR, avoid messing up and show they can earn a future promotion.

Inevitably, managing this 'talent' is problematic. MPs that performed well as Shadow Critics in Opposition may not transition well to Government. Some Ministers turn out to be inept managers or embarrass the Government. And as Governments go along, good Ministers leave and need to be replaced.

Governments lose talent and energy as they age. They need to renew their front bench to retain power. Demoting a weak Minister is always an option but that leaves a disgruntled ex-Minister on the backbench. Opening up a safe seat for a star candidate requires an MP to resign.

The great value of patronage appointments is that it allows the Prime Minister to clean house and make room for ambitious, able backbenchers or recruit new talent. Senate appointments, Boards, Commissions, Ambassadorial and Consular posts – these are all great carrots.  By rewarding past loyalty, an encouraging signal is sent to those still serving. And it is easier for Ministers and MPs to leave if there are multiple opportunities in the private sector. 

People are more reliable and manageable when governed by their self-interest. And it is precisely the use of these carrots to manage them that has been sharply reduced in contemporary federal politics.


For the three hundred plus years political parties have operated in Parliamentary systems, post-government employment options have been available via patronage or, as a result of experience and connections, gained while in office.

It is not unreasonable to expect people entering political life to give some consideration to their long-term economic prospects.  Now there are fewer marbles to play for and they are less widely distributed. Possible consequences include:

  • If loyalty has less value, there will be less of it.  The tenure of leaders will be shorter and party politics will be less stable.
  • If less economic value is attached to a career in politics, there will be more people in politics who couldn’t find a better job. More demagogues and 'chancers' could be attracted to politics.
  • MPs will be reluctant to give up their seats voluntarily. Party caucuses will grow long-in-the-tooth and party renewal more problematic.
  • If it is harder to recruit new talent over time, then the talent a leader bring when first entering office becomes more critical.  The temptation of leaders to get involved in the nomination process will not go away.

These predictions might be unduly pessimistic.  Economic self-interest is not the only or even major draw of politics. Ideals, interest and ego play a large role.

Perhaps politics is a form of tournament economics like the movie business or professional sports. In those fields, the small size of the winners’ circle does not discourage a steady supply of new contestants.

The diminished economic value of a political career may simply end up exacerbating existing trends. If there is one less glue binding parties together, they will just wobble a little faster and fall over more often.

From the perspective of individuals considering a political career, major disincentives already exist – hyper-partisanship, limited independence, having to parrot the talking points du jour.  For any accomplished person with other options, the lack of long-term economic prospects is just one more reason to check the ‘No’ box.

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