Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Patronage reform would be simple

Patronage has been back in the news over the past couple of weeks, with Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard accused of inappropriate appointments to the Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

CBC's political analyst reflects on patronage issues

Patronage has been back in the news over the past couple of weeks, with Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard accused of inappropriate appointments to the Advisory Council on the Status of Women. 

One was her executive assistant’s spouse, who is also the full-time employee of another Liberal MLA. The other was her election agent. 

Let me say, right off, that I don’t mean to pick on this minister, those two nominees, or that advisory council. It’s merely the latest example of an old, old merry-go-round.

“Unfair!  Favouritism!” cries the opposition (no matter which party they are), pointing out the party ties of the appointees. They’re right, of course, because these dozens of agencies, boards and commissions (“ABCs” in the jargon of government) were not created to be roosts for government supporters. 

But they’re also wrong, because they have no evidence that party ties were, in fact, the reason behind the appointments. 

“Political theatre! They’re well qualified!” cries the government (no matter which party they are), defending the appointments. 

They’re right too. 

Government supporters must not be excluded just because they support the government, and the nominees appear to have worthy backgrounds.

But the government’s also wrong, because there is a yawning gap between "qualified" and "the best qualified." Many people might be "qualified," especially when the criteria are unstated or vague, but only one can be "the best qualified."

In the 21st century, do we really have to argue that the best person should prevail in a competition for a public position? I hope not. 

Nevertheless, the patronage merry-go-round keeps turning because of one thing: secrecy.

There is a multi-stage process to ABC appointments, which is supposed to provide some internal checks, but almost all of the process is hidden from the public.

The criteria for appointment are usually vague, and are rarely stated in advance. 

Nobody outside the government knows who applied, so it is impossible to know whether the best person is being appointed.

Few attempts at appointment reform

There have been a couple of attempts at appointment reform. 

The Savage government decreed that all ABC nominations would go to the legislature’s Human Resources Committee — a process still followed today — but the committee sees only the name put forward by the minister. 

The committee is not told, and has no right to know, if somebody better applied. All parties have complained, at one time or another, that the committee is merely a rubber-stamp.

The Hamm government added an internal layer of screening committees. Those committees are appointed in secret, operate in secret, and weed out only the most obviously unqualified candidates.

Both reforms failed because they didn’t come to grips with the fundamental question: How can we know that the best person was appointed? 

Minister Bernard’s two controversial appointees may well have been the best of the 21 applicants. She had to sign a document saying they were — that’s part of the process — but members of the public have no way to verify her claim.

Reform would be simple. An end to secrecy would bring the merry-go-round to a crashing halt. The public would have facts, instead of competing claims.

All parties would commit to appointing only the best person from the pool of applicants, and proving it.

All positions would have the qualifications stated in advance.

Then either the government would publicize the list of all applicants, or if privacy is an overriding concern, it would give the Auditor General or Ombudsman authority to spot-check the appointment process and investigate specific complaints.

If it’s so simple, why doesn’t anyone do it? Why didn’t my party do it? 

Good question. 

As you discover when you get into government, the status quo is mighty sticky. I could write a book.

In the end, Minister Bernard withdrew one of the appointments (the spouse of her executive assistant), but not the other (her election agent). She was supported in this by her premier. I don’t understand the distinction, and so won’t attempt to explain it.

When it comes to patronage, I wouldn’t mind the occasional backsliding, or the occasional 50-50 proposition, if it looked like we were making some progress overall. But we’re not.

Round and round it goes. Round and round.


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.