Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Patronage in Nova Scotia

Political patronage is back in the news again, this time with the appointment of longtime Liberal worker and failed candidate Glennie Langille to the formerly civil service position of Chief Protocol Officer for the Province of Nova Scotia. Premier Stephen McNeil seems to have a deaf ear for political consequences of his "business as usual".
Friends first, Nova Scotia second

Patronage has been with us forever but it has changed some in the past 30 years. I moved to Wentworth thirty-five years ago just as the low-level patronage practices were changing. Prior to that time almost all of the government jobs changed with the government, school bus drivers and Department of Highways workers particularly. Those were jobs that many men in the community could fill, and competently, and so there was little ill will as one set of workers was swapped out for another. It was almost as if the jobs were shared around and the political rewards system was how it was managed. Many of the jobs were seasonal but one always got enough stamps for Unemployment in the winter, so they were good enough jobs, especially since many had other part-time occupations in farming and working in the woods.

A lot of men also ran a truck, hauling gravel and salt for the Highways garage. That was good for a few dollars in the summer, and the choice of truckers for the work was always very political.

There was a fair amount of dignity in the system, though. One of my neighbours ran a truck for the Liberals, and when the government changed he parked his truck behind his barn because he "wasn't hauling gravel for the Tories!" A Highways supervisor in Wallace refused to go to the depot the day after the government changed, and the mechanics had to come to his house to remove their shortwave radio from his half-ton truck. But another of my neighbours changed his politics to keep his truck running, and there weren't many more immoral crimes than that one on my road.

Things improved throughout the 1980's as the rate of turnover slowed. After the general election of 1981 the Conservatives took power but several of the Highways workers (prominent Liberals) were kept on nonetheless. One grader operator was kept on but was "being watched". And the local Supervisor was kept on, which was scandalous because that was the most political of all the jobs as he did some of the hiring. It was told around (by partisan Liberals) that he was being kept on because he was a smart fellow and metrification was in full swing and the Tory who should have been in line for the job didn't have the math.

It was in this decade that the system swung around to where one's politics mattered when you were hired, but once on staff you were safe from political firing.

The last of the patronage positions to fall was that of Highways Supervisor, and the way they accomplished that was to make the job a civil service position although the incumbents were kept on under the old system. The incumbents were being encouraged to resign and re-apply for the job but quite a few sized up their chances of being re-hired and decided to stick with the old system. By now they are all retired and all of the Highways jobs are civil service positions.

The patronage system was also alive and well in the appointment of provincial and federal judges, although it was a combination of cronyism and old boys' networks as much as patronage. With provincial appointments politics was very much at play, but the trick was that they were selecting the best of the Liberals or the best of the Tories, and those were pretty good guys. (There weren't many women lawyers at that time.) Many of the judges were active in their parties, perhaps holding a position with the riding associations, but they were largely policies and ideas men, and they had the best interest of the province at heart.

At some sad point the system changed, and patronage appointments were less about picking the best of the partisans and more about picking the person "entitled" to the job. It became less about who you were and more about who you knew. This became particularly uncomfortable when federal politicians continued to reward their friends with positions on our superior courts. Elmer MacKay, longtime MP for North Nova, arranged to have his campaign manager appointed to our Supreme Court in the 1990's as MacKay was leaving politics. The new judge was a small town lawyer largely unknown in the field. Our Premier John Savage needed to find a place for his Chief of Staff and appointed her to the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board, and when she needed a more secure position she was appointed to our Supreme Court by the federal Minister of Justice, a former classmate. It was widely reported at the time that our Nova Scotia advisory committee submitted a short list of names and the list kept being returned by the Minister until the appropriate name appeared on it. I have heard that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a learned but realistic man, shrugged his shoulders at the news and opined that "sometimes these things work out." Maybe so, but it gives me no confidence to know that our judicial system is mediated by people whose principal qualification is an association with politicians.

At the provincial level we have a nice system of appointing our judges. The position is advertised and candidates apply, and the screening committee, consisting of judges and lawyers and citizens and civil servants offers the Minister of Justice a list of names, and so far as I know, the Minister picks the name at the top of the list. We have had a few duds and embarrassments from this system but we also have a very fine crop of provincial court judges who enjoy the confidence of all.

Which brings me back to Premier McNeil. A neighbour of mine, late 50's, never votes. I, early 60's, have voted in every election I qualified for. When I queried my neighbour on a recent election day she replied that she never votes because the politicians are all the same, and they are all crooked. Crooked? I said. You mean corrupt? No she said, they are out for what they can get. And sad to say, I am beginning to see what she means. There are lots of partisan jobs in government and in caucus but Premier McNeil needed an extra one for his friend Ms Langille so he took the job of Chief Protocol Officer out of the civil service and gave it to his friend. I expect that there was a deputy Chief Protocol Officer who was probably eminently qualified to assume the top job, and now that deputy has the task of teaching the job to the new patronage appointment. And who besides the Premier thinks that his newly appointed Chief Protocol Officer is actually competent to do the job? I am sure that the Premier actually doesn't care. He knows that his friend is safe for at least four years, and that the other employees in the department will ensure that no great protocol gaffes occur. Shame on them both.

There used to be some honour in the political patronage system. And now, precious few Nova Scotians think that there is much honour in the entire political system. And I wonder whose fault that would be?

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