Why the salaries of staffers in the Prime Minister's Office matter - Macleans.ca

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.

(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.


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

  1. My gawd……….is everyone in this country jealous?

  2. I’ll say this again and again- Public sector pay has to be fixed to a ratio against the average Canadian family income, and there has to be a maximum somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 times the average of the private sector family income. Nobody is being beggared at that amount. Plus, we need caps on pensions and we need to apply economies across the public sector that forces the overall average to an amount more reflective of private sector earnings. i.e, the combined payroll of the federal government should roughly equal the average personal income of Canadians employed in the private sector.
    As well, we need to revisit pensions. There is nothing wrong with capping the pensions of public servants, again, at a fixed ratio to the average privately employed person’s income. I like a number closer to 75% of the average Canadian income, regardless if pre-retirement earnings would put that number higher. Most Canadian taxpayers live off of their own savings in retirement. What would be wrong with expecting high earning federal employees to do the same?

    • Staffers have to have specific knowledge, work 24/7/365, travel constantly……and lose their jobs if the PM changes.

      You are simply jealous as always

      • So? What’s your point? My point is that public sector pay has run amok. By fixing it to a relatable benchmark that is totally controlled by open market forces, you eliminate the problems that arise when the apparatchiks grow economically distant from the proletariat, if I may use socialist terminology. Ultimately, the earnings of public workers are controlled by the same market forces that act upon the earnings of private sector workers.
        That’s the opposite of the current situation.
        By applying private sector averaging to the public sector you literally re-level a playing field that has tilted grossly in favor of the public sector.
        There’s another, more fundamental aspect. Simply put, no one should grow wealthy in the public sector. At some point, the system itself should encourage those who wish to acquire wealth, at a rate greater than the real limitations public sector pay imposes, to pull up stakes and GTFOD.
        Basically, if you think you’re being limited at $225k/yr, there’s a whole wild world of for-profit enterprise out there. Go forth and prosper. I’ll guarantee you that if we took a hundred public employees making $350k/yr, and told them it’s $225k or hit the sidewalk, ninety of them would stay. So why would we continue to pay them three hundred and fifty large?
        We haven’t realized those economies simply because our supposed leadership has lacked the cojones to go after it with gusto.
        BTW- I’m afraid it’s you that’s jealous, simply because you’ve never put up a line of reasoning that goes beyond 3-5 syllables. Girlie, I got a workbench full of busted Ford 9-inch parts, any one of which has more intellect than you. Moe-ron.

        • Pay is perfectly reasonable …..you’re thinking of a typing pool and file clerks. The PMO staffers are nothing like that.

          I’ve told you before that if we really wanted to save money there are at least a hundred things we could cut that would save massive amounts…..but no, you want to go after individuals …..people who do jobs you could never do.

          Car parts are your limit, buddy. You must have a neighbour or old school acquaintance that’s in the public sector and it really bugs your ass.

          • How does one so obviously parasitic have such an entitled attitude?
            No wonder your family shuns you.

          • I believe senior government officials should be paid on an equivalent basis to what a job of comparable responsibility would earn in the private sector. That way we’d attract some really strong talent as opposed to the incompetents we currently have. Get a stellar private sector CEO, pay him his $5 million salary and make him Prime Minister. You’d quickly see a huge reduction in staff, a vast improvement in efficiency and a 30% reduction in costs since he’d run it like a big company. Gerald Butts would never get hired to do anything in such an enterprise after it was obvious that he’d lead the Ontario Liberals down an economic sewer.

    • I would take a somewhat different approach. Public sector jobs should have pay, benefits, and pensions that are comparable to what their private sector counterparts make. There may not always be a direct counterpart for a given public sector job, but since pay equity is a well established practice now, it should be readily possible to come up some kind of equivalent.

      I’d also argue that public sector unions should be treated differently from private sector unions. Labour unions try to maximize pay and benefits for their members as much as possible. These are their primary goals and anything else is secondary to these goals. This is to be expected and works fine in the private sector, as far as I am concerned. However, it breaks down in the public sector where a) the employer cannot go bankrupt due to an inability or unwillingness to control costs, and, b) customers must still pay for services they aren’t receiving when a strike or lockout is in effect. So, in the public sector, the usual market and economic forces that would normally result in both sides coming to a mutual agreement are significantly muted, if not altogether absent.

      The result of this is public sector wage and benefits gains that noticeably exceed what people doing equivalent work in the private sector see, or back-to-work legislation being enacted after a strike has resulted in an interruption of often vital services. Neither outcome is particularly desirable. Which is why I favour binding arbitration for public sector negotiations that come to an impasse. Neither governments nor public sector unions would like this as it results in a loss of power, but it does put the people who pay for and receive government services first, which is as it should be. And binding arbitration should have very specific parameters to use in awarding increases. As mentioned before, pay and benefits of private sector counterparts should be taken into account, as well as the amount of growth (or shrinkage) of the economy during some previous time period.

      This doesn’t even get into the inherent conflict of interest that exists when the government is formed by the de facto labour party, the NDP.

      • We’re on the same page. I’m not a fan of binding arbitration as it has too often led to lopsided judgments for the labor side. This is because the arbitrators always use an outlier wage settlement within the public sector as a benchmark.
        My thinking is a little more radical, but ultimately fair. Pay increases must be automatically tied to the AFTER TAX pay trends within the private sector. Thus public sector pay would follow private sector pay, and would build in an incentive to economize the provision of services. It would actually incentivize the public sector in the same fashion we taxpayers are.
        After all these decades of abuse of the taxpayer by public unions, I still can’t believe that the idea of eliminating the strike privilege from the play book is considered radical.

  3. it’s not the pay, but how many JT has on staff or nanny’s.

    • How many did Harp have? Except they weren’t any good.

      • How many did Trudeau Sr. have? Except they weren’t any good.

        I can’t believe I sank as low as Emily.

        • I’m afraid you don’t even understand the topic

  4. “I wasn’t doing it for the money. Nobody does.” And I bet you even wrote that with a straight face! Hilarious!

  5. The risks inherent in this work necessitate a generous compensation package. After all, we’re not Detroit, we’re Ottawa, Ontario. ~C

    • However, the downfall of Detroit (the city) can be traced directly back to overly generous pay for the public service, which outstripped the ability of the public to pay. This process has been repeated in St. Louis, Baltimore, Stockton, San Bernardino, Chicago, etc. Yes, the total pay packet of the PMO may be just a few pixels in a big picture, but failures of economy in one place are often indicative of failures of economy everywhere. Taxation in Canada is already at unaffordable levels, which means that economization is the only way out of our fiscal mess.