Harper government opened patronage doors before election, records show

The Harper government approved 148 appointments to federal boards and agencies, long used as rewards for supporters of the party in power, as the election neared, The Canadian Press has learned.

The Harper government approved 148 appointments to federal boards and agencies, long used as rewards for supporters of the party in power, as the election neared, The Canadian Press has learned.

Cabinet handed out the posts in three rounds, the first only two days before Parliament recessed for the summer, the second on July 30, at peak holiday time for politicians and political journalists, and the third less than a week before Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Sept. 7 election call.

Harper, who railed against Liberal patronage in the 2006 election, later failed to deliver on a campaign pledge to put an independent commission in charge of vetting cabinet appointments.

He shelved the idea after opposition MPs refused to ratify his nomination of Gwyn Morgan, a Calgary oil baron who is also a friend of the prime minister, as the commission chair.

It's difficult to determine how many of the recent appointments went to members of the federal Conservative party or to provincial Progressive Conservative parties.

Many have had no comment on their new jobs, but interviews and public records outlining the backgrounds of others suggest Harper was courting the  party faithful in a number of cases.

A retiring Halifax physician who was named to the Canada Pension Plan review board described how he received a call from a prominent provincial Conservative who asked him if he was interested in the spot.

The physician, Ronald Gregor, said he helped a prominent provincial Progressive Conservative candidate campaign in his neighbourhood in the last Nova Scotia election, but only for a week of door-knocking.

He described how his name first went to the office of Defence Minister Peter MacKay, the federal political minister for Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and then to the office of Human Resources Minister Monte Solberg.

A retired Ottawa lawyer who also received an appointment to the pension review board, whose members primarily hear applications for disability pensions, said he simply told a prominent Ontario Progressive Conservative he was looking for something to do in his retirement.

The lawyer, Murray Young, said he told longtime provincial cabinet minister Norm Sterling, who represented an Ottawa riding, that he "wanted something, a week a month."

Young said he doesn't know Environment Minister John Baird, the federal political minister for the Ottawa region, and has never met him. He said that after he spoke with Sterling he found a CPP board vacancy on a government website, but he couldn't remember the name of the site.

The 148 appointments to low-profile but rewarding agencies — including the pension review board, employment insurance referee boards, immigration and refugee appeal boards and port authorities — were among a host of jobs filled by cabinet in the three rounds, government records show.

Other posts filled included superior court and national parole board vacancies, both of which involve a screening process, and higher-echelon nominations to federal commissions or Crown corporation boards.

Salary or other remuneration for some of the agencies, such as the CPP review board, are established by Treasury Board and not published. The port authorities, responsible for establishing their own levels of remuneration, likewise do not publish the figures.

But, as an example, Privy Council Office documents show that part-time members of the Immigration and Refugee Appeal Board receive a per diem between $480 and $560. Full-time members are paid between $95,500 and $112,300 annually.

The appointees included a 2007 director of the Vancouver Quadra federal riding  association, Marlie Oden; a past defeated provincial Tory in Newfoundland and Labrador, Wilson Wiseman; and a Sudbury, Ont., woman, Lyne Demers, who worked for the whip's office in the Ontario government of Mike Harris.

Others included in the Harper appointments were Brian Ketcheson of St. Andrews, Man., who lost an election bid for the provincial Tories in 1995; Faith Collins of Victoria, who ran unsuccessfully for the federal Progressive Conservatives in 1993; and David Saxton of Yarmouth, N.S., a provincial Progressive Conservative supporter and donor.

A Conservative party spokesman played down the significance of the appointments.

"We don't believe political involvement should preclude people from serving in these capacities," said Mike Storeshaw, the communications director for Treasury Board President Vic Toews, who is on leave to act as a party spokesman during the election.

Storeshaw also dismissed the extent of the appointments and the fact they were made as the government was likely preparing for an election call, contending that a snap election could have occurred anytime with a minority Parliament.

But the Canadian Taxpayers Federation criticized Harper for not carrying through with his promise to change the patronage system.

"It's business as usual, rewarding party faithful," said Adam Taylor, acting national director of the federation.   

The federal election is Oct. 14.