News / Canada

Green Party's Elizabeth May calls PMO staff 'ruthless psychopaths'

Mike Duffy infamously referred to staff in the Prime Minister's Office as "kids in short pants," but Elizabeth May appears to have done the embattled senator one better.

Speaking at a town hall in Nanaimo, B.C. on April 13, the federal Green Party leader and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands called the PMO "a $10-million-a-year partisan operation filled with ruthless, cutthroat psychopaths."

May later told Metro her comments were made "in jest," but insisted they're indicative of a common attitude among staff in Ottawa's back rooms.

"They're these unelected, hyper-partisan political operatives," she said. "They're really just all about winning and they have a take-no-prisoners attitude."

In recent years, PMO staffers have faced a raft of accusations, including harassing or disparaging bureaucrats, penning talking points for MPs, handing out "enemy lists" to cabinet members and interfering with both access to information requests and local nomination races.

"The staff at the PMO have no allegiance to anything other than getting the Conservative Party re-elected. And they feel entitled to tear strips off bureaucrats at all levels of the system," May said. "It completely offends the principles of parliamentary democracy."

May was clear the "sociopathic" attitude she described cuts across party lines, and said it stems from the power held by party leaders.

"It was (former Liberal prime minister) Pierre Trudeau who created the PMO as entity with power," she said. "Under Lester B. Pearson, it was just a handful of clerks and a stenographer."

After his election in 1968, Trudeau — who infamously referred to MPs as "nobodies" — moved many of the functions of the non-partisan privy council into the PMO. Most of his major economic and constitutional initiatives were launched out of the office, setting a tone that would be followed — and intensified — under his successors.

"Instead of being a check on the bureaucracy, the PMO became a check on cabinet," said Dr. Donald Savoie, a Canada Research Chair at the University of Moncton and author of Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics.

While he agreed that politics can be "a competitive and vicious game," Savoie said May's comments about the PMO were hyperbolic.

"I think Ms. May has been watching House of Cards a bit too much," he joked."It's a bit of a stretch to say things like 'psychopath.'"

Savoie said a number of factors have encouraged party leaders to consolidate power. Things like globalization, social media and the advent of near-constant news coverage have turned politics into a game of image management, he said, where party leaders are more concerned with handling spin than handling cabinet.

"The competitive nature of politics is far more pronounced," Savoie said. "When any screw-up, even from a backbencher, has a powerful impact... it has to be managed from the centre."

May and Savoie both agree the prevailing attitude in Canadian politics is harming democracy. May feels the desire to maintain power often conflicts with sound policy making, while Savoie believes the "gamesmanship" on display in Ottawa is discouraging Canada's "best and brightest" from entering public service.

"We're fast approaching the point where anybody who could make a substantial contribution to public service in Canada won't want to run," Savoie said.

Research conducted by Samara Canada shows Savoie may be right. The non-profit recently published a book, Tragedy of the Commons, based on exit interviews with 80 former MPs.

Samara director Alison Loat said many politicians described their own nomination races as "uncomfortable" at best, or pre-determined by party staff at worst. Plenty of them also expressed frustration at the power wielded by the PMO.

"There's a pretty consistent message that there's more power and authority there than in the hands of individual MPs," Loat said.

For those concerned about how much influence prime ministers and their legions of short-pantsed staffers wield, there is hope on the horizon. An upcoming private member's bill from Conservative MP Michael Chong aims to return the balance of power to pre-Trudeau levels.

The bill — which has yet to reach second reading — would allow party caucuses to hold leadership reviews and remove the ability of party leaders to veto candidate choices made by riding associations.

"We need more Michael Chongs," Savoie said. "What he's offering, I give it an A+."