Nunavut premier defends political staff hirings
“It is the prerogative of the premier to hire extra staff when needed”
South Baffin MLA Fred Schell grilled Premier Eva Aariak March 8 about how much money is budgeted for her personal political staff, during a committee-of-the-whole meeting at Nunavut’s legislative assembly.
In the business plan for the Department of Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs for 2013-14, about $1.23 million is budgeted for the salaries of five staff members in the premier’s office.
All Nunavut government cabinet ministers, including the premier, may personally hire certain political staff.
But Schell said he wanted to know the job titles of Aariak’s staff members.
“I have a press secretary, all the ministers have an executive assistant, and also executive secretaries in our office, and also the special advisor to the premier, who also assists us from Ottawa,” Aariak said.
“They are not located here so that they can be close to the federal government. These are the main staff that I work with,” she said.
The special advisor position has been in existence since the fall of 2011.
Schell wanted to know if that special advisor is a beneficiary, and if there was a competition for the position.
Aariak answered no to both of those questions, saying “the staff of the ministers don’t necessarily go through competition, because of politics they don’t go through the normal competitions.”
Schell wanted to know the salary of the special advisor, but Aariak said she did not have that information in front of her.
“His representation and disclosure of the realities here in Nunavut has assisted us greatly,” Aariak said.
Aariak hired the special advisor partly because he’d worked for her before when he was at the Office of the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut.
“When we hire political staff, especially if they are going to be directly advising you, you need to know who you’re hiring,” she said.
The special advisor, Christopher Douglas, previously worked as director of Official Languages for the Government of Nunavut.
A biography posted on the Pirurvik Centre website lists Douglas as a staff member and said he worked as a policy advisor and researcher for the Office of the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut, and with the Gwichi’in Social and Cultural Institute.
In response to a question from Schell, Aariak said she may have consulted the special advisor when she was preparing to run for office.
Schell said Aariak did not make the public aware of the “special positions” of her politically-appointed staff members before giving Nunavummiut an opportunity to apply.
And he asked Aariak why she needed to hire new people, such as her special advisor in Ottawa and a deputy chief negotiator on devolution.
“The previous premier did not need to magically create new positions or special advisors. Why does this premier do that?” he said.
“It is the prerogative of the premier to hire extra staff when needed,” Aariak responded, “like it is practiced in any other of our provinces.”
In her defence, Aariak said she has every right to hire anyone she wants as staff.
The afternoon saw Aariak, Dan Vandermeulen, her deputy minister, and David Pealow, her director of corporate services, fending off question after question from the MLAs.
Chief among the MLAs’ concerns: the EIA department’s hiring practices and their cost.
Schell also questioned Aariak about the position of Nunavut’s chief negotiator for devolution, now held by David Akeeagok.
Given that Akeeagok is also the deputy minister of the environment department, he “will have many other responsibilities,” Schell said.
“We have our chief negotiator as the Deputy Minister of Environment. It was with careful [thought] whether he can handle both,” she said, adding that if devolution negotiations advance, “that could very well change.”
Schell also questioned Aariak in detail about the position of the deputy chief negotiator for devolution, suggesting that she had kept the MLAs and public “in the dark on this new position.”