OTTAWA — If Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are re-elected on May 2, political aides in ministerial offices could find a nice bonus when they return to work.
The Harper government has quietly approved increases in the maximum salaries political staffers are entitled to receive.
In addition, suddenly out-of-work staffers could find the blow considerably cushioned if the Tories were to lose the election. That’s because the government has also approved a 50-per-cent increase in the maximum separation pay political aides can receive — up to six months from four. That’s on top of severance pay.
The changes went into effect April 1, just one week before Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced budget cuts to eliminate the federal deficit one year ahead of schedule, in 2014-15. He said that feat would be achieved “by controlling spending and cutting waste.”
Whether a staffer actually receives the maximum allowable salary or separation pay is left up to the discretion of each minister, who must still keep within an overall office budget.
But ministers will have a little more money to play with since the government has decreed that their offices should no longer have to foot the bill for international travel by ministers, their staff and parliamentary secretaries. Those costs will now be absorbed by government departments instead.
Ministers were notified of the changes in a January document, entitled Policies for Ministers’ Offices, which is posted on the Treasury Board website. But for anyone without in-depth knowledge of pay scales and past practices, it’s not obvious from the document what, if anything, has changed.
However, The Canadian Press has obtained a fact sheet distributed on Jan. 27 by Treasury Board — “for the use of ministers and deputy heads” — which helpfully spells out the “key changes.”
The fact sheet specifies that maximum salaries for political staff have been changed to reflect equivalent employment levels in the public service and will “automatically increase in concert with those of the public service.”
That means a chief of staff to a senior minister is now classified as anywhere from an EX-02 (maximum salary of $131,000) to an EX-04 (maximum $168,000). A director is classified as EX-02, a press secretary or policy adviser as AS-08 ($102,000), a senior special assistant as AS-07 ($96,000) and support staff as up to AS-05 ($78,000).
The fact sheet also indicates that staff in the offices of junior ministers of state will be treated more like those of senior ministers. For instance, the salary for a junior minister’s chief of staff will increase to the EX-02 level and for support staff to the AS-05 level.
Since political staffers’ salaries are to be tied to those of public servants, all those at the various AS-levels are in line for a wage increase of 1.75 per cent this year, 1.5 per cent in 2012 and two per cent in 2013 — in accordance with a new collective agreement for the civil service.
“Our government has demonstrated time and time again that we take our responsibility to safeguard the public purse very seriously,” said a statement from Conservative spokesman Chris Day. “We have led by example. That’s why we didn’t hesitate to put in place a freeze on the salaries of the prime minister, ministers, MPs and senators in Budget 2010.”
But the Liberals said the changes would be “very difficult” to explain to working families.
“It’s almost unfathomable given the deficit situation, given the fact that MPs themselves have agreed to freeze their salaries, and given the fact that (Harper) says he’s going to make up all the shortfall by trimming — as he calls it — fat,” said Liberal MP David McGuinty.
“I think it’s one of those things … do as I say, don’t do as I do.”
The NDP used the news to argue for its own plan — which would cap the number of partisan staffers, create a more merit-based appointment system, and introduce a new code of conduct for ministerial staff.
“This is outrageous behaviour,” said the NDP’s Paul Dewar, the MP for the riding around Parliament Hill. “Conservatives are more focused on bonuses for their political staffers than protecting people’s pensions or lifting seniors out of poverty.”
Any annual increase for those at the EX-levels will be dependent on the recommendation of an independent advisory committee, according to Treasury Board spokesman Pierre-Alain Bujold.
The fact sheet also spells out that ministers now have discretion to authorize up to six months’ separation pay for staff with four or more years of service in a ministerial office. Separation pay remains at a maximum of four months for those with less than four years’ service.
The policy document says separation pay “is intended to compensate for possible loss of earnings resulting from an often unpredictable and, at times, abrupt termination of employment.”
It also explains that separation pay is on top of the automatic 30 days of pay, to which all political staffers are entitled upon losing their jobs. All of that is in addition to severance of two weeks pay for every year of service.
Adding it all up, Tory aides who have worked in ministerial offices throughout Harper’s five years in government would be entitled to as much as 9.5 months of pay should they find themselves without jobs after May 2.
The policy document specifies that separation payments “are to be funded through departmental operating budgets,” a policy that does not appear to have changed.
However, the offloading of international trips onto departmental budgets is new.
Bujold said that change is meant “to address the fact that ministers’ international travel is often directly related to departmental international requirements and obligations and should appropriately be covered by departmental budgets.”
The Tories said cuts to ministerial office budgets last year were slated to save $11.4 million annually.
“The overall staff pay envelope has been cut and capped; and any individual salary changes would have to be within that smaller envelope,” Day said.