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Recruitment woes plague Harper's government

OTTAWA - When Lisa Raitt lost her director of communications last week, an already gaping hole got even bigger back at her office.

OTTAWA - When Lisa Raitt lost her director of communications last week, an already gaping hole got even bigger back at her office.

Jasmine MacDonnell, 26, took the fall after sensitive Natural Resources documents were left behind at a television studio.

Raitt had already been searching for a chief of staff. Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq are in the same boat.

Around Parliament Hill, insiders and outside observers point to a serious political recruitment problem: finding and keeping experienced people has been a challenge for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government.

When seasoned hand Bruce Carson left Harper's side last year, complaints began that even at the top there was a dearth of experienced staff.

The reasons behind it are disputed.

Some place the blame squarely on the Federal Accountability Act, Harper's first major piece of legislation after he formed government three years ago.

The act removed the priority status for political staff seeking jobs in the public service. And it created a five-year cooling-off period for employees before they could take jobs that involve lobbying government.

An oft-cited case is that of Elizabeth Roscoe, who had to cut out all lobbying on behalf of her new employer, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, because she worked for two-and-a-half weeks as a volunteer on Harper's transition team.

Even though a director of communications job pays up to $124,000, and a chief of staff job up to $160,000, there's not exactly a flood of quality applicants.

"There has to be a value to coming to work for a minister and for a government," said Mel Cappe, former clerk of the Privy Council under Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien.

"Public servants want ministers to have good staff, and if there are inhibitors in bringing good people to government because they can't use their experience when they leave, they're not going to be attracting people."

Said one Conservative insider: "No matter the time, no matter the party, minister's offices are no place for on-the-job training."

But others scoff at the Accountability Act argument, pointing out there are only so many government-relations jobs available anyway. Not everyone can become a lobbyist.

The fact this is a minority government is a big factor, they say. Who wants to take a job with a minister when you could be out of work in less than a year if the government falls?

Other staffers who spoke to The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity said the problem goes back to former staff in Harper's office, including Sandra Buckler, once communications director.

At the time, many ministerial staffers were kept on a short leash. Only a select number of ministers and their employees were permitted to manage their own messaging.

The prospect of being micro-managed turned off prospective employees, argues one staffer.

"They didn't want seasoned people pushing back, saying what they were doing was stupid. People who might want to do it just didn't want to go."

The atmosphere has changed under new chief of staff Guy Giorno and communications chief Kory Teneycke, but the repercussions remain: some staff lost two years' of practice thinking on their feet.

"There's a lost generation there," said the staffer.

Yet another Conservative argues that for a government that has a lot of rookies, precious few mistakes have been made.

Even MacDonnell's mishap with Raitt's paperwork - if she, in fact, left it behind - could have happened to anyone, the Tory notes.

"You don't hear about much of that happening. I presume they're pretty responsible people."

 
 
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