He is a model of carefully studied public behavior. Asked to reply to the claim—made with increasing frequency around the Ontario legislature—that he is more powerful than the highest-ranking civil servants at Queen's Park, unelected NDP policy adviser Ross McClellan paused before venturing a cautiously phrased response: “I’m most satisfied in terms of structural things we’ve been able to do with the working relationship that we’ve developed between their office and our office on a project-by-project basis.” Despite McClellan’s tentative assessment of his own status, many New Democrats describe the 48-year-old former NDP member of the legislature and social worker as the most powerful of the 38 people who operate Premier Bob Rae’s office. The only other officials whose influence rivals McClellan’s are principal secretary David Agnew, 33, the government’s chief political strategist, and Rae’s 52-year-old chief of staff, Lynn Spink.
As is the case with other premiers, Rae’s top aides act as his political antennas—and his administrative enforcers. They provide Rae with daily political intelligence, define his policy choices and ensure that his 27 ministers—and the bureaucrats who head Ontario’s 90,000strong civil service—carry out their boss’s decisions. But unlike the staff in some other premiers’ offices, freighted with lawyers and consultants well connected in the business world, Rae’s team draws on the coalition of unions, social-advocacy groups and academics that brought the NDP to power.
Still, McClellan’s convoluted appraisal of his own influence telegraphs the extreme caution that all of Rae’s closest aides display. And it reflects their sensitivity to criticism from opposition members—as well as some from their own party—who claim that the premier’s office has drawn too much power into its own hands.
McClellan, the son of a Bay Street investment dealer, taught social work at the University of Toronto before winning office as a westend Toronto MPP in four successive elections between 1975 and 1987. His wife, Patricia, is a former NDP organizer. Spink, an American expatriate, moved to Canada in 1961—and later became a citizen. She has worked as a planner for the City of Toronto, an executive assistant to former Toronto mayor John Sewell and a coordinator for the Canadian Union of Public Employees. A divorced mother of two daughters—Sarah, 28, and Rachel, 26—Spink is a women’s rights advocate who smilingly refers to her daughters as her “feminist network.” In her spare time, she is an avid swimmer. For his
part, Agnew worked as a parliamentary intern in Ottawa and a reporter for The Canadian Press in Edmonton before joining Rae’s office as an aide in 1981, when the latter was a federal MP. The next year, Agnew married fellow Rae aide Sheila Kirouac—who now works as a media co-ordinator in the premier’s press office—and followed Rae to Toronto to join his staff when the MP won the leadership of the provincial New Democrats.
Beer: The three key aides gather each weekday morning at 8:15 for a strategy meeting to review the day’s most serious issues. Joining them for most of those sessions, along with other officials whose presence is determined by the day’s agenda, are three other significant members of Rae’s senior political staff. Melody Morrison is a lawyer and equestrian who specialized in represent-
ing native groups on various constitutional issues before she joined Rae’s office last fall, where she now works as Agnew’s assistant. In charge of NDP appointments to public boards and commissions is Carol Phillips, a former assistant to Canadian Auto Workers union president Bob White. Phillips often hosts intimate dinner parties for friends and political colleagues at the home she shares with husband Gerald Caplan, an NDP consultant. Special adviser David Reville, a cigar-smoking and wisecracking aide, was an NDP MPP from 1985 to 1990. He recounts how he first met his future colleague Spink during the 1970s, when he was a home renovator repairing her three-storey house in Toronto’s midtown Annex neighborhood—“I was her plumber,” deadpans Reville. Morrison, Phillips and Reville also form a group after hours—often analysing the day’s events over a beer in a nearby pub. In a typical week, McClellan, Agnew and Spink also accompany Rae to a four-hour meeting of eight senior cabinet ministers on Mondays and to midweek meetings of the full cabinet. But it is Spink who has the most exhausting regimen. Since October, she has fielded about 3,000 requests from citizens groups, unions and businesses for a meeting with the premier or his presence at a function. She also screens informal requests from ministers and bureaucrats seeking the premier's ear. In addition, she accompanies Rae — through 12-hour days that often extend into the weekends—to all of his official meetings and most of his trips.
In an effort to find a few minutes each day to devote to her own thoughts, Spink says, “I walk the 15 minutes to work because there are no phones on the way.”
Key: The lines of authority among Rae’s key aides are fluid. Although all staff members technically report to Agnew, senior New Democrats say that McClellan often wields the most influence over the government’s direction. According to Rae government insiders, McClellan has played a key role in deciding government policy, cabinet shuffles and even appointments to such positions as the chairmanship of caucus committees. Indeed, declared one senior New Democrat, ‘‘Only a third of the cabinet has his power.” That observer, who is not a member of the premier’s office, added that some government members are disappointed that Agnew has not checked McClellan’s growing influence. “Agnew has not been as strong as one might have thought,” he noted. “In confrontations, he backs down.”
However decisive McClellan’s individual role may be, there is no question about the power that Rae’s office wields over the rest of the government. In dealings with the provincial bureaucracy, it exercises its power through the cabinet office—the most senior level of the provincial civil service. Few initiatives reach the agenda of cabinet and its various committees until the premier’s political staff approves them. On one occasion earlier this month, a ministerial proposal on the regulation of reproductive technology appeared on the agenda of one cabinet committee. But when one Rae staffer noticed the item, he questioned whether it justified the political effort it would require. Said the aide: “It did not fit into the mission. We made it go away.”
Some New Democrats complain that the leverage Rae’s staff holds over policy has created other problems. They say that some cabinet
ministers have had difficulty persuading their own staffs to pursue projects unless they have been approved by the premier’s office—and, in particular, by McClellan. Said one government member: “The bureaucrats won’t lift a finger if they’re ordered to work up a policy. The message has gone out that they don’t have to until the Ross McClellans of the world approve it.” Added Gordon Floyd, president of Public Affairs Management Inc., a Toronto consulting firm that specializes in Ontario government affairs: “McClellan’s got the power to put a minister’s pet project into what I call ‘orbital referral.’ He can send them in circles forever by referring a policy back to committee repeatedly.”
Rae’s office is radically different from the one that former Liberal premier David Peterson ran. According to Floyd, a close observer of both regimes, Liberal ministers routinely brought welldeveloped policy proposals to cabinet meetings without seeking Peterson’s approval first. Peterson’s own attendance at inner-cabinet meetings was spotty—a fact that Rae’s aides recall with partisan relish. Said McClellan: “The previous premier, I gather, was impossible to brief and had a relatively short attention span.”
For his part, McClellan stresses that no single official controls government policies. “It’s an opposition theme that we have created this Politburo in the premier’s office,” said McClellan. “Actually, we’re trying to ensure that the work is done in the ministries—and decisionmaking at the cabinet level.” He noted that at least three cabinet committees and the full cabinet examine each policy before it is presented as legislation. Added Re ville: “There is a perception that if a minister wants to fart, they need approval from the premier’s office on the timing of the fart, the quality of the fart and the frequency of the fart. But in fact, there’s a lot of room for ministers to promote their own agendas.”
Indeed, some NDP ministers—none of whom had served in government before last fall—say that they view the premier’s office as a valuable backup presence, compensating for their own lack of experience. Said one minister: “If I need some advice, I call up David Agnew.” She added: “It makes sense for the premier’s office to keep a close eye on things because this is a new, inexperienced government. It would be crazy for them not to.” For the men and women around Rae, however, that supporting role to a freshman cabinet translates into considerable power—and a weighty responsibility.
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