(Ottawa) –  Ottawa Citizen, June 2, 2010 – By Kathryn May

Donation by Calgary CEO largest in university’s history

A Calgary businessman has given Carleton University $15 million to create a new master’s program for the hundreds of ministerial aides who roam Parliament Hill and other corridors of power with no training and little accountability.

The donation by Clayton Riddell, founder and CEO of Paramount Resources Ltd., is the single largest gift in Carleton’s history. It will create Canada’s first “political management” program to improve governance with training for political staffers, campaigners and office-holders.

“The people who staff the corridors of political power should be as educated in the rigours of their jobs, as are public servants and journalists,” said Chris Dornan, director of Carleton’s Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs.

The one-year program, to be announced today, will be patterned after similar ones at Fordham University, George Washington University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. It will be housed at Carleton’s faculty of public affairs. The first class of 25 students will begin in September 2011 if approved by the Ontario Council on Graduate Studies.

The idea began with Preston Manning, who said he became convinced of the need for a more intensive university course after running crash courses at the Manning Centre for Building Democracy to “raise the level of knowledge and skill of political practitioners.”

Manning said Carleton’s president, Roseann O’Reilly Runte, was keen and committees were quickly struck to examine the feasibility before making the pitch that pushed the idea through the university’s channels. The big obstacle was money and, after much door-knocking, Manning was key in bringing Riddell aboard.

Riddell has no affiliation with the school, but said in a statement he was convinced by Manning that Carleton’s programs in public policy and public affairs, coupled with its Ottawa location, made it the best choice for such a program.

“People love to complain and criticize and it’s wonderful to see people get up and do something really positive,” said Runte.

“This is a transformative gift for the university, the donor and the country because, if we can make government better, then we have filled an education mission and Mr. Riddell has shown great leadership.”

Manning said political staffers could learn on the job years ago, but not in today’s world of 24-hour-a-day communication. A green staffer’s misstep or mistake can “end up on You Tube by that night,” he said. Instead, he said: “Train them better and prevent the mistakes.”

Manning said the Conservatives’ accountability act post-employment rules made the problem worse because they deterred the older, experienced political aides who should have been mentors to help train a new crop of staffers.

However, Manning argued such a program was also needed to train would-be staffers on ethical behaviour, which should shape all their decisions.

He said ethics shouldn’t be taught as a course, but “permeate” the program so it’s uppermost in their minds when doing their jobs.

He said the program must also be “cross-partisan” to better orient its graduates for the “most partisan arena you can get.” The various political parties also had input into the program.

The power and influence of ministerial aides has grown dramatically over the years, but they learn on-the-job with no training or code of conduct and a murky understanding of their roles and relationships with ministers, bureaucrats and the public. Many have argued this inexperience and lack of training are a weakness in Canada’s governance.

Aides are typically young, smart, ambitious and attracted to politics, having worked on a campaign or in a youth wing of political parties. Critics have called them “loose cannons, amoral political warriors” and “accountability sinkholes.”

The uncertainty about their role is at the heart of the political furor over political aide Sebastien Togneri, who blocked the release of a sensitive report under the Access to Information Act.

Similarly, Jasmine MacDonnell, then the 26-year-old aide to current Labour Minister Lisa Raitt, lost her job after losing a briefing book and a tape recording of her boss, which landed in the hands of a journalist.

Dornan said the courses should prepare senior political staffers at all levels of government for what was expected of them on the job.

He said he hoped it would also tone down the rancour of today’s partisan politics. The students, who will come from all political stripes, will have to work together on projects, which should promote a greater understanding of political differences than they learn coming through the ranks of political parties.

“We hope they will see their opponents as honourable combatants in the forum of contestation and debate that is healthy, and you can put yourself in the shoes of your opponents,” Dornan said.

Liane Benoit did the last major study on political aides for the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal and has long pressed for a code of conduct for staffers.

She said a program to professionalize political aides was a step in the right direction, but their role was still fuzzy and ill-defined.

“The problem is that it’s up to Parliament, not a university, to define this role,” she said.

The curriculum will be built around courses on Canada’s institutions and governance, communications, campaign management, turning public policy ideas into legislation, as well as the sometimes thorny and murky relationships between staffers and ministers, public servants and the public.

When completed, graduates should be equipped to work as senior ministerial aides, legislative assistants, strategists, campaign managers, government advisers and policy liaison officers for NGOs and other organizations.