01/03/2013 07:10 EST | Updated 03/05/2013 05:12 EST

The Secret, Occasionally Crappy Lives Of B.C. Caucus Staffers

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It often feels as though oversimplification is the default setting for political discussions. Take a sound-bite universe, some leaked documents and add in a B.C. government fighting for its political life and you get this fall's outrage over B.C. government caucus staff using their work email accounts and office time — in other words, your dollars — to work on a clearly partisan political website to discredit Opposition Leader Adrian Dix.

Now, when a team is this far offside, there's no doubt you have to call the play. Still, the breathless apoplexy demonstrated by some members of the fourth estate screams for context. Not excuse making, but a lifting of the curtain a little on life in the basement boiler rooms of B.C. politics.

To better understand why the media outrage felt so cynical, you have to understand the nature of the caucus job and all its complications.

Just who are these caucus staffers? Many descriptors glamorize them as "key operatives" or "senior strategists." But mostly they are young, in their 20s and 30s, hired by both government and the opposition to work for MLAs. You, the taxpayer, provide their salaries via the budget each party is allocated by the B.C. Legislature.

Some are propelled to Victoria by true belief in party dogma, others by ambition and some are lured by campaign directors who fill their heads with promises of opportunities to broker power. In reality, those often starry-eyed staffers find themselves working punishing hours for relatively crappy pay, little job security (no gold-plated severance packages here) and the wrath of their political masters should they fail to meet some pretty insane expectations.

They literally work underground in the basements of the legislature, where in the event of an earthquake, they are doomed. For those lucky enough to have windows — the view is of other people's feet — and sometimes a curious seagull.

Ostensibly, caucus staffers on the government side are supposed to research and highlight the fine work that backbench MLAs are doing on behalf of their constituents. It's a challenging prospect when anything newsworthy, noteworthy or remotely positive is usually scooped up by cabinet ministers or the premier's office.

Often, they are left to clean up the communications messes that occur when a backbencher goes offside. Little wonder then, that some spend their time in caucus trying like hell to get out of the basement and into positions with nominally less-partisan government communications departments.

ndp attack ads Caucus staffers on the Opposition side are supposed to research and highlight the fine work their MLAs are doing on behalf of constituents. It's an even more challenging prospect when you consider that most of the attention is focused on the Opposition leader and a handful of critics.

Both sides are responsible for enticing reporters into picking up stories, and stick-handling the demands that come along: "Can I have this exclusively? ... Can you find me a victim who will go on TV by 1:30 this afternoon? ... Can you hold this until tomorrow? I have a tee time."

And every day, staffers on both sides walk a line between conduct that, per their paycheque, is in the public interest, and per the demands of the job, is highly partisan political activity.

During the legislative session, a big part of the day is spent preparing for Question Period. Opposition staff begin around 6 a.m., scanning news, mining horror stories from constituency offices, and working the phones to construct questions to be asked by your MLAs (earning, by the way, at least twice that of some of those staff).

They hope said questions will land embarrassing blows on the jaws of the government's senior ranks. The pressure is intense. No explosive stuff? No face time for their MLAs on the news.

Government caucus staff start early too — scanning the same headlines and working the phones to come up with plausible answers to deftly bat away the potentially embarrassing questions that will arise in QP. Save your masters by warning them about what might blow up in the news cycle? You've done your job. Get caught flat-footed? Not good.

The purpose of all this again? It's all for you, dear taxpayer, to demonstrate that your elected officials are doing the people's work. Staffers are instruments of this pure and well-intentioned mission. Officially, the political payoff is just the cherry on the sundae.


If an NDP caucus researcher's hard work exposing severe health gaps and patient woes serve this purpose while ALSO making the Liberals look bad, well that's a dandy bonus.

If a Liberal caucus staffer's diligent digging up of an old quote or policy stance in which the NDP actually agrees with the government of the day — well that work is just aimed at demonstrating a solidly performing administration right? The potential flakiness of the Opposition is a mere fringe benefit.

And like brokers in a commodities market, win or lose, it's the journalists who report on the results who have the good day. I should know. I was one of them.

The Standards of Conduct governing caucus staffers unequivocally states that political party activities must not happen on taxpayer-funded time, nor on taxpayer-funded equipment. Clearly, in the case of the anti-Dix website, some staffers were well over the line. The reporter who broke the story deserves his scoop.

But those with an up-close view of party politics in Victoria know how the line is blurred in more subtle ways by caucus staffers on both sides, on any given day.

The whole thing reminds me of a scene from Casablanca. Capt. Louis Renaud, under pressure from his political masters, shuts down Rick's Café Americain and orders everyone out.

"How can you close me up? On what grounds?" demands Rick. Replies Renaud, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here," just as a croupier walks by and hands Renaud his winnings.

Even if the roulette wheel stopped spinning at Rick's, caucus staffers, hired to do a unique job, will have to continue to straddle, and yes occasionally even cross that fine political/public interest line. It's what many cynical friendships and party victories are made of. But please, let's not feign shock.