3. The PMO: Partisan or no?

PMO Headquarters in Ottawa

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is a central government agency made up of the top political staff of the prime minister. Typically partisan loyalists, PMO employees change with every new leader, as opposed to the full-time civil servant staff of the Privy Council Office (PCO).

In the past, the PMO had a relatively weaker role in parliament since most of the duties it now engages in were performed by the PCO. After the 1968 election of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, power was consolidated in the PMO, and the size of the office grew to 100 officials in the hopes of increasing efficiency and improving control in government. Under Mulroney, the PMO ballooned to nearly 200 staffers.

The agency has no statutory role and its budget comes from that of the non-partisan PCO, but its responsibilities and functions are determined by the political interests of individual prime ministers.

For the most part, PMO staff are engaged in policy creation, communications strategy, public relations and acting as a link between party officials outside the legislature and the prime minister.

It is one of the most powerful parts of the Canadian government, but a poorly delineated role between the PMO and the PCO has led to problems of accountability and partisan overreach. Where a prime minister would formerly receive much of his policy advice from administrative civil servants in the PCO, she or he can now function in a more insular environment staffed by party loyalists of his or her choosing. [1]

Many PMO hires in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s time have come directly from high ranking roles in the Conservative party. Ian Brodie, who formerly served as the Party’s executive director, became the PMO’s chief of staff in 2006. [2] In 2013, Director of Political Operations Jenni Byrne became a deputy chief of staff in Harper’s Office. [3]

If the PMO is accepted as partisan, but publicly-funded, where is the dividing line between party business that should be done privately and that which can be done on the taxpayers’ dime?

Watt and Delacourt were both faced with this question on June 17, 2013. “It seemed the PMO itself was conducting duties we normally expected to be done by the party research offices,” says Watt. [4]

Next: The Gomery Commission and federal accountability

1. Alex Smith, The Roles and Responsibilities of Central Agencies (Ottawa: Library of Parliament, 2009), 2-5.
2. “PM’s chief of staff Ian Brodie leaving: reports.” CBC News. 21 May 2008.
3. Leblanc, Daniel. “Harper’s ex-spokesman named executive director of Conservative Party.” Globe and Mail. 7 December 2013.
4. Martin, Lori, and Laurie Watt. Personal interview. 8 December 2014. Unpublished.