Patronage: Canada’s Shame


Political patronagePatronage is the dirty secret behind most nations and governments. It’s a shameful, embarrassing, corrupt and very undemocratic practice in which friends, supporters and benefactors get plum contracts, jobs, appointments, cash, perks and bonuses.

These are usually parcelled out not on the basis of achievement, ability, or talent, but rather simply because of political cronyism.

Canada is no better, and probably somewhat worse than most Western nations in how its governments practice this loathsome act of onanistic rewards. But unlike many more democratic nations, Canada maintains an official, government-sponsored body for patronage: the Senate. Our patronage Senate is something you’d expect from some developing Middle Eastern nation where friends of princes get fat rewards for their support, not a so-called Western democracy.

Well, because of our unelected Senate, we’re really an oligarchy. Given the salaries, unrestrained perks and benefits and expense accounts of our MPs, we might as easily be described as a plutocracy. Just look at the sense of grandiose entitlement of some of the foremost snouts in the trough – like Minister Bev Oda and tell me it’s not a government of plutocrats. (Oda is ostensibly the Minister of International Cooperation, but that appears to be a pseudonym for the Minister of the Most Entitlements).

The unelected and unaccountable Senate has authority to change or even reject legislation that elected officials craft. This, of course, means Canada is not a democracy, but rather an oligarchy where the ‘good old boys and girls’ in the Senate who have benefited from the patronage scheme can run the country without having to face the rigours of democracy or have their worth challenged in an election. When governments change, it gets stacked with party faithful whose sole qualification seems to be obsequious affection for the current prime minister.

It is the least credible, least transparent government agency, but it runs the country. The Senate stinks like an overripe corpse, but so does every patronage appointment.

A recent story in the National Post asked if patronage was “the oil that keeps our democracy turning.” Nice metaphor: patronage is as slick and slimy as oil. The article opens:

OTTAWA — Pork-barrel politics. Nepotism. Feeding at the public trough. Cronyism.
Call it what you will: Every government participates in patronage.
Jean Chretien appointed his controversial public works minister, Alfonso Gagliano, as ambassador to Denmark just as the sponsorship scandal was unfolding.
Brian Mulroney appointed his deputy chief of staff, Marjory LeBreton, to the Senate.
Stephen Harper appointed his former foreign affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, ambassador to France.
And a recent Postmedia news analysis showed about 25% of failed Tory candidates from the 2011 election landed government appointments or jobs of some type.
But while Mulroney may have scandalized purists when he famously said, as opposition leader: “There’s no whore like an old whore” in reference to patronage plums, not everyone believes patronage perverts democracy.

Sadly, the self-described reformers of this toxic practice have succumbed to its lure. Stephen Harper promised to clean it up and create an elected Senate. Instead he has perpetuated the abuses by keeping it as a trough in which Conservative snouts can feed. His credibility as Prime Minister is tied to Senate reforms, which he has refused to institute.

The lack of transparency has fuelled a belief that it’s not what you know that lands you a patronage post, but who you know in the government.

But where is the will in Ottawa to end this system of buddy rewards and Senate appointments? Certainly not this government. As this story pointed out last December, Harper’s patronage appointments have become a holiday tradition in which the party faithful get their rich plums from the PM:

As reported by the Canadian Press Wednesday, Harper slipped through a rash of Conservative patronage appointments just after the pre-Christmas exodus from Parliament Hill. The recipients included failed candidates, ex-caucus members, members of Conservative riding executives and long-time party faithful.
Looking back, it seems that Harper’s Christmas appointments have become somewhat of an annual tradition.
On December 20, 2010, Harper appointed two new Senators – Larry Smith and Don Meredith.
On December 22, 2008, Harper made a record number 18 senate appointments…

What’s ironic is Harper’s history of denouncing the slimy practice of which he has become the undisputed king:

In opposition, Harper denounced the practice.
“(Canadians) are ashamed the Prime Minister continues the disgraceful, undemocratic appointment of undemocratic Liberals to the undemocratic Senate to pass all too often undemocratic legislation,” he said in the House of Commons in 1996.
Then, in 2006, after opposition MPs rejected his choice of a patronage watchdog, he vowed to one day stop the appointments of friends and insiders…
Harper now has his majority, yet the patronage appointments continue.

Funny how that evangelical zeal to reform a bad system has been lost since he has been in power. When will Canada get a government or a leader bold enough to break free of the patronage system and finally make Canada a democracy?

One thought on “Patronage: Canada’s Shame


  1. During the last election campaign I was shocked by host Mike Duffy’s apparent support of the Conservative campaign on his CTV show. I generally prefer my news and current affairs coverage to be a little more unbiased. Anyway, I just assumed this to be a case of minor unprofessionalism on the part of a mediocre presenter/interviewer. But then – of course – he was subsequently rewarded by Harper with a cushy seat in the Senate. Should have seen that coming.

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