12/04/2015 01:44 EST | Updated 12/04/2016 05:12 EST

The New Parliamentary Secretary Roles Are A Welcomed Change

House of Commons, Canadian Parliament, Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada
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House of Commons, Canadian Parliament, Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada

In Canadian governments, parliamentary secretaries (PS), parliamentary assistants (PA), or whatever they may be called, are the consolation prize for MP, MPPs or MLAs who have not been chosen for a cabinet role.

The positions exist at both the federal and provincial levels but are largely unknown to the great mass of voters.

A cynic might say that the posts are just an excuse to reward loyal team members with more money and perhaps a better office. And sadly the cynics would be right, based on Canada's parliamentary history. Blame the various prime ministers' offices over the years for this. It is human nature to under-perform if not given real and meaningful work. People need a purpose in life. Elected officials are human, too.

Given the above, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's announcement that his parliamentary secretaries will be given real responsibilities -- including on policy matters central to the government's agenda -- is welcome news. It is also good management. Mr. Trudeau has a large caucus, which includes some who had been in cabinet in the past and others who have had successful careers prior to being elected. They will want to be useful and they will need to have influence. They will also want a place where they can prove themselves for when cabinet spots are made available. Almost all MPs not in cabinet will say "just give me chance."

By the way, if you search "just give me a chance" on the Internet, the first thing that comes up is a Justin Bieber song title of the same name. Canada has truly become a country of Justins... and selfies. Sorry, Mr. Trudeau.

But I digress. Smart parliamentary secretaries will use the opportunity to dig in and deliver results that will get noticed.

There are, however, some pretty important pitfalls that can stifle even the smartest and most ambitious parliamentary secretary. The first is that the minister to whom they are assigned must want them. Otherwise, no matter how hard they work, they will be ineffective. They will not have an ally at the cabinet table to help advance their cause. This can be a showstopper. Much good work will atrophy.

In addition, the public service will tend to ignore a parliamentary secretary who does not clearly have the confidence and support of the minister. In other words, the machinery of government will stall or even worse, work counter to the parliamentary secretary. Death by machine!

At minimum, not having ministerial support will confuse the public service. They know how to deal with a minister (well, mostly) but never how to deal with an unsupported parliamentary secretary. The easiest route is to pretend that the office is empty. This will obviously kill the parliamentary secretary's sense of purpose and results.

Let's be optimistic that the new government will use most secretaries properly. There are good reasons to do so. As mentioned, there is the morale issue for MPs who are not in cabinet. Importantly, there is also a chance for the political side of the house to get policy attention on issues for which the Ministers cannot fit into their schedule.

A good parliamentary secretary can also can be a great ambassador to stakeholders. Extra arms and legs with nice titles to spread the governments messages and, even more vital, to get feedback from people from the "real world."


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