Edmonton·Analysis

Appointments to agencies, boards and commissions often 'partisan,' political scientist says

Agencies, boards and commissions, which help oversee billion-dollar decisions, are the building blocks upon which the provincial government stacks its agenda.

All governments take advantage of the power to appoint like-minded members

Len Rhodes was appointed last week as the new board chair of the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis commission. (Tim Adams/CBC)

Agencies, boards and commissions, which help oversee billion-dollar decisions, are the building blocks upon which the provincial government stacks its agenda.

Last Friday, less than six months into its mandate, the UCP government made 60 appointments to agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs), and changed the board chairs of nine colleges and universities.

There are about 270 ABCs listed on the Government of Alberta website.

MacEwan University political scientist Chaldeans Mensah said the intention for all governments is to fill ABCs with competent, well-qualified members to carry out work on behalf of the public.

In reality, Mensah said, governments of all political stripes take a similar approach. 

"Often, the overriding consideration for governments is to appoint their partisan friends into these positions. It's not simply something that occurs here. It's across the board."

In the case of the UCP government's agenda to deregulate, Mensah said, it's critical they have the right people in place to see that through. 

As outlined in its platform, the UCP has committed to "cut red tape on job creators by one-third over four years to get Alberta working."

Premier Jason Kenney has appointed an associate minister of red tape reduction. In its first legislative session, the government passed Bill 4. The Red Tape Reduction Act, which according to the government website cuts "unnecessary regulations by one-third and makes sure new regulations are free of red tape."

From candidate to board chair

There are numerous ABCs in Alberta that range from lesser-known groups such as the Alberta Shorthand Reporters' Association council, where government appoints one member, to the boards of governors of post-secondary institutions such as the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary. 

In making the appointments, the UCP government found a spot for Len Rhodes as the new board chair of the Alberta, Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Travis Toews, president of treasury board and minister of finance, on the day the new UCP cabinet was sworn in. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press )

The former CEO of the Edmonton Eskimos, Rhodes was hand-picked by Kenney to run for the UCP in the April election. 

Circumventing the grassroots nomination process, Kenney riled local party members who wanted a local candidate to represent them in the Edmonton-Meadows race, not someone parachuted into the riding.

Rhodes was defeated by NDP candidate Jasvir Singh Deol.

Finance Minister Travis Toews defended Rhodes appointment during an interview with CBC News.

Toews said the government wanted someone leading the AGLC who will reflect its priorities.  

"Len (Rhodes) has such a strong organizational background and business background and so much credibility here in the province," said Toews. "So we were very confident that he would be able to provide really great leadership to the AGLC."

The NDP was quick to characterize the UCP appointments as a return to (Ralph) Klein era practices, and singled out the Rhodes appointment as an example.

Cronyism or common practice?

"This is a shameful return to the [Progressive Conservative] culture of cronyism," David Eggen, the NDP's advanced education critic, said during a news conference on Friday.

"More than 14,000 regular Albertans have lost their jobs over the past two months, while Premier Kenney is making sure his failed candidates, defeated MLAs and legacy donors get board appointments."

Eggen said unlike the UCP, the NDP waited until the terms of members had expired before naming their replacements.

So deeply ingrained was the ABC patronage culture during the 44-year run of the Progressive Conservative government in Alberta, the NDP made reforming the system a priority when it came to power in 2015. 

Over its term, the government of former premier Rachel Notley chipped away at the number of agencies and changed how members were appointed and the compensation paid to those who lead them.

In the March 18, 2019, speech from the throne, the last one delivered by the NDP government before the election, reference to the ABC overhaul was prominent.

"Millions of dollars in waste and entitlement have been cut such as taxpayer-funded golf club memberships and way-out-of-proportion salaries for CEOs of government agencies," the speech said.

But though the NDP changed the way things were done, reduced the perks, and gender balanced appointments, it drew from its own familiar well of friends.

Many, but not all appointments the NDP made, came from the ranks of organized labour, or from social services circles. 

Those appointments ranged from senior bureaucrats to the board chair of the Workers Compensation Board, Grace Thostenson, a former vice-president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

Thostenson was replaced last week by the UCP.

"The NDP when it came to power, also seemed to appoint people who were perhaps ideologically predisposed towards the NDP government's position," Mensah said.

"I think in terms of the political direction in terms of how these games are played ... I think governments do that all the time."

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