New Brunswick

PCs question Liberals' move to allow civil servant to run for election

A Liberal candidate running on a slogan of change says she’s not pushing to change a political practice that exempts her from civil-service rules and lets her run for office.

Susan Holt's job was moved from a civil service role to political staff role

Susan Holt, the Liberal candidate in Fredericton South, says she supports the existing policies that lets non-partisan civil servants move into partisan political jobs so they can become election candidates. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

A Liberal candidate running on a slogan of change says she's not pushing to change a political practice that exempts her from civil-service rules and lets her run for office.

Susan Holt says she supports existing policies that let non-partisan civil servants move into partisan political jobs so they can become election candidates — then move back to a non-partisan role later if they lose.

"We're moving from policy to policy and assessing what rules apply, and abiding by those rules that are appropriate to the circumstances," said Holt, the Liberal candidate in Fredericton South.

Previous governments have allowed their appointees to do the same thing, and while Holt's slogan is "Add women, change politics," she says the change she'll push is to make politics more transparent and civil — not get rid of the practice.

"I believe the role of unrestricted staffers is an appropriate one … because of the nature of their work. I understand that to be an appropriate position for a select group of folks. So I wasn't planning on eliminating all politically unrestricted positions."

PCs question job transfer

Holt's status, including the fact she's on maternity leave from her job, became an issue Wednesday when Progressive Conservative MLA Brian Macdonald asked about her running for office while she's on paid leave.

Macdonald said in a committee session Holt was "campaigning full-time" and receiving "the full salary" while on leave from her position as chief of business relationships with the Gallant government's Jobs Board. The salary is between $150,000 and $175,000 per year.

But after Premier Brian Gallant said she was on maternity leave and Macdonald was "setting back" the attempt to get more women running for office, the Tory MLA said he was not interested in the maternity-leave angle.

"I am no longer concerned that she has taken any leave at all," Macdonald said. "Whether she took leave or not no longer bothers me."

He said the real issue was Gallant shifting Holt from the civil service into a political staff role so she could run for office without having to resign.

Until last fall, Holt's Jobs Board role was a politically restricted civil service position, meaning, like most civil servants, she was not allowed to take part in partisan politics.

But in late September, about two weeks before she gave birth and began her leave, Gallant quietly transferred her job into his office, which redefined it as non-restricted, Holt confirmed Thursday.

"It's the same role that I've had. It's just been moved."

More women in politics

Gallant said it's important to make it easier for women to get into politics.

Holt says changing her status means she can run as long as she takes an unpaid leave beginning 20 days before election day, when she becomes an official candidate.

Susan Holt is on maternity leave from her position as chief of business relationships with the Jobs Board. She is also the Liberal candidate in Fredericton South for the upcoming election. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

And she says the rules also allow her to eventually return to a non-partisan civil service job.

If she loses in Fredericton South on Sept. 24 but Gallant's Liberals are re-elected, "then I will return to the premier's office in a politically unrestricted capacity," she said. She could return to a civil role later "if that's where the clerk and the premier's office want to put me."

Gallant defended his decision to shift Holt's position during Wednesday's legislative committee hearing by pointing out Dallas McCready, a PC-appointed deputy minister in the Alward government, was moved in the same way.

That allowed him to take unpaid leave so he could help run the Tory campaign, Gallant said. "That was okay because he was a man and he was still working?" he asked Macdonald.

Macdonald said Thursday the distinction is Holt is running as a candidate. "That's a special category. The premier should not be using public funds to recruit Liberal candidates."

Not a gender issue

Several women used social media Thursday to accuse Macdonald of discouraging women from running for office.

"Anyone still wondering why there are still so few women in politics?" tweeted Fredericton businesswoman Andrea Feunekes. "I thought we had made headway in the last several years. Apparently not."

But other women weren't convinced. "I don't think it's a gender issue," said Becky Matchett, who lives in the Fredericton South riding where Holt is running.

"I don't think it needed to be spun as a gender issue, and that's frustrating. It was just a question of, 'was she moved from this position to this position.' Yes, she was. … She just happens to be on maternity leave."

Gallant said Wednesday that Macdonald's allegation Holt is campaigning "full-time" shows a lack of awareness. "Is he insinuating there's no real work when someone's on maternity leave?" Gallant asked.

Holt said she's doing about 20 hours of campaigning a week so far while also caring for her newborn daughter and her two other children.

Not on full salary

She also said she's not receiving her full salary from the province. Maternity leave benefits come from the federal government, and the province has a policy of topping up that amount to 75 per cent of an employee's salary.

Once Holt goes on unpaid leave for the campaign, she'll lose the provincial top-up but will still collect the maternity leave benefits from Ottawa, she said.

The province's rules on political activity by public employees are silent on how to account for someone on maternity leave. "It's an opportunity for us, maybe, to modernize," Holt said.

The restrictions on political activity by civil servants are designed to preserve "the public trust" people have in government, according to a government policy document.

"Members of the public must be assured their political affiliation is not a consideration in any dealings they may have with public servants," it says.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.