Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Political patronage alive, well

PM's promised transparency missing in action

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OTTAWA -- The ink was barely dry on the election results in 2006 when the newly minted Prime Minister Stephen Harper began to make good on an election promise to make federal appointments less politically motivated.

On April 20, 2006, Harper nominated the first appointments commissioner, who would head a new public agency to oversee the appointment of Canadians to hundreds of national boards, tribunals, review panels, judgeships and so on.

"The commission will provide the necessary oversight to ensure that the selection of individuals is based on merit and is done in an open and transparent way," Harper said in the news release crowing about the accomplishment.

Ending cronyism and patronage and instilling a fairer and more accountable government was a key marker in Harper's campaign for the prime minister's job, one he thought would set him apart from a Liberal government that was regularly accused of patronage.

There was an inherent irony in Harper's first choice of an appointments commissioner. Gwyn Morgan, a Calgary oil-and-gas executive, a Conservative donor and fundraiser and a personal friend of Harper himself.

Opposition parties cried foul that the person who would oversee the cleaning up of patronage appointments was himself appearing to be the beneficiary of patronage.

In the minority government Harper lived with for five years, opposition dissent was enough to kill the appointment. A bureaucratic wing was established to support the commission with an annual budget of $1 million, but the commissioner's job was never filled. Harper never nominated anyone else. For six years, the secretariat did very little other than writing reports on its mandate.

Last week, when the omnibus budget bill got royal assent, the whole idea was quietly scrapped.

When Harper couldn't get his first choice for commissioner installed in the minority government, he not only took his toys and went home, he began appointing Conservatives to government positions at an astonishing rate -- judges, Crown corporation executives, senators, review-tribunal board members, you name it. Nearly one in four Conservative candidates in the 2011 election who didn't win landed on their taxpayer-funded feet with plush government jobs.

According to the website, since Harper became prime minister, 1,038 people with Conservative connections have been appointed to various federal roles. In the same time period, 73 people with Liberal ties, four with NDP connections and one each with ties to the Bloc Québécois and the Green party have been given a nod.

One of the latest came June 21 when Marni Larkin, a Manitoba businesswoman with ties to the Conservative party a mile long, was named to the CBC board of directors.

The immediate accusation from critics was she was only named to the board because of who she knows and what political party membership she holds.

Larkin herself told one media outlet she hadn't applied for the position and didn't know who put her name forward as a suggestion. She didn't respond to a request for an interview from the Free Press.

A certain amount of "who you know" is involved in almost any job-application process. Who's to say Larkin wouldn't make a superb CBC board member? As the owner of BoomDoneNext, a sales and marketing company in Winnipeg, she has some experience dealing with media, mainly on the business end of things and in public relations for the Conservative party and candidates.

She clearly has experience in politics, and boards are normally rife with politics.

But when the federal appointments process has no transparency, any time someone with political ties as strong as Larkin's gets a pretty plum appointment (she could earn up to $17,000 a year in per diems for attending board meetings), it is always going to raise serious questions about the merits of the appointment.

It is interesting that with some other major promises Harper couldn't fulfil in a minority government -- such as eliminating the long-gun registry and the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board -- he simply held off until he got his majority and then pushed the changes through.

But when it came to an appointments commission to turn off the taps to the patronage gravy train, Harper earned his monopoly and then eliminated the whole idea entirely in a little more than a year.

If the prime minister still believes in openness and transparency in appointments and that people should be chosen based on merit, not party ties, there is no sign of it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2012 B3

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