Let’s establish parameters around the notion of political patronage, and why it matters.
Political patronage occurs when a person is rewarded – usually through favors, appointments to public office or boards, or by receiving contracts or grants – for supporting a specific party and/or politician by campaigning for them, or through financial donations.
To be clear: patronage is not illegal. In fact, there are valid grounds for the argument that patronage is politically responsible; we elect a political party to govern the way they promised, so it makes sense that they would appoint people who share their vision to fill key roles.
Nor is patronage equal to corruption, which is defined as the abuse of political power for personal gain, and is illegal. Patronage can creep into corruption, however, if a politician breaks the law to patronize their supporters, such as by bypassing terms of the tender on a government contract in order to give it to a party donor.
And finally, patronage is not new.
In his biography of John A. Macdonald, author Richard Gwyn said Canada’s Father of Confederation “…made little attempt to pretend that his purpose was good government rather than the good of the party…and he made certain that his supporters understood the rules.” Wilfred Laurier did the exact same thing.
In the 1980s, Conservative leader Brian Mulroney went to town on then-Prime Minister John Turner for the blatant appointments Turner made on behalf of his predecessor Pierre Trudeau. Mulroney won the general election – some say on that issue – and then did the exact same thing.
Here at home, the Saskatchewan NDP were notorious for it, and now the SaskParty – always quick point out they are doing exactly what their predecessors did – are notorious for it too.
American computer scientist and United States Navy admiral Grace Hopper once famously said, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way.'”.
With all that in mind, here’s when and why you should care about diversity and political patronage on Saskatchewan government Agencies, Boards and Commissions (the ABCs).
They’re a big deal. ABCs are responsible for public spending, service implementation, regulating industries, and making judicial or quasi-judicial decisions about people’s lives and property. If someone is appointed to their position because of their loyalty to a political party, what comfort does that provide you that they’ll put the public interest first?
There’s cash involved. Yes, it’s often modest, but most ABC appointees are compensated with a retainer of about $10,000 per year, plus a fee of $500 or more for attending each board meetings. Even if the appointee doesn’t need the cash, that’s still a nice little trip to St Kitts every year.
ABC roles in public service are career-builders. Often they are stepping stones to higher profile, higher paying posts. They can including paid training.
Most importantly: these are public service roles and the management of distribution of major tax dollars is in play.
Merit and a commitment to diversity, not who your friends are, should be the deciding factor on Saskatchewan board appointments.
But, in Saskatchewan, ABC appointments are made by Order in Council, or in other words, the Premier’s inner circle and a handful of key Ministers. It’s nearly impossible to find information on vacancies, nevermind apply for them. Contrast this with provinces like Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which all have websites dedicated to advertising vacancies and inviting applications from their residents.
Despite their seeming commitment to openness, however, the Ontario government has still recently received criticism for its patronage appointments, by way of a Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) report.
In the deeply sarcastic release, the CTF rakes the Liberal Wynne government over the coals:
“ABC appointments dating back to 2011 reveal that patronage appointments were given to 9 per cent of federal and provincial Liberal candidates who failed, retired, or subsequently won an election between 2007 and 2016. The data shows a total of 39 apparent cases of Liberal candidates receiving patronage since 2011.”
9%, or thirty-nine cases of patronage, out of thousands of appointments made to Ontario’s hundreds of ABCs, and the CTF was outraged.
I wonder how they’d feel about Saskatchewan.
To the graphs!
I looked at the board composition of eight major Saskatchewan Crown Corporations: SaskPower, SaskEnergy, SaskTel, SaskWater, SGI, Sask Housing Corp, the Global Transportation Hub and the new Saskatchewan Health Authority.
A whopping 49% of directors on the boards of these Saskatchewan Crown Corporations are donors to the Saskatchewan Party, according to party returns filed over the last five years.
In fact, the number is probably higher, because I didn’t delve into Sask Party candidate returns from the 2016 election.
70% of the SaskPower board donated to the Sask Party in 2016, and at least one, who has essentially built a career on Crown Corporation board appointments, is a Sask Party constituency president.
Jeremy Harrison’s campaign manager is a board chair.
The chair of one Crown Corporation owns a private corporation in the exact same industry, and another chair has significant investments in his Crown’s industry.
I’m sure there are plenty more eyebrow-raisers, because those examples are just the ones I stumbled on accidentally.
For some good news: these eight boards have almost reached gender parity.
In fact, the majority are completely balanced. The exceptions, largely responsible for the 10% gap, are the board of the GTH, which has two women sitting on an eight-member board, and the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation which has one woman out of six directors.
Now for the bad news. The really, really bad news.
I checked once, twice, and even a third time. Surely I’m missing something.
But no… no I’m not.
Of the 84 directors that comprise these eight boards, five of them are indigenous individuals.
Of the 84 directors, seven are a visible minority.
Just to be clear, even if we expected these boards to simply reflect the demographics of the population of Saskatchewan, they’re still way off. According to 2016 census data, over 16% of this province’s population identified as indigenous or aboriginal.
2016 census data also shows that 11% of the population identifies as a visible minority, which is defined by Stats Canada as “persons, other than Aboriginals, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour”.
Diversity means valuing not just elements grounded in expertise and experience, but in personal characteristics such as gender, age and ethnicity.
Independent directors are directors who do not hold management positions with the Crown or business relationships that may interfere with the independent facilitation of their judgement – are also vital. You don’t need me to tell you that either. I fail to see how the fact that at least half of Saskatchewan’s Crown board appointments are Sask Party political supporters promotes the notion of independence.
On the gender front, Saskatchewan is killing it, and that’s awesome. But it’s not good enough. To be clear, Saskatchewan is not an outlier on diversity – most of Canada is behind.
We are absolutely the outlier on political patronage and out of control political donations.
It’s time for the Saskatchewan government to shine a light on board appointments, open up the process to the entire population – not just their friends – and revisit their commitment (I’m assuming that buried somewhere is a policy) to appointing indigenous and visible minority residents to the groups leading this province deeper into the 21st century – because we’re headed in that direction, no matter how much it feels like, at times, this province would rather do anything but.
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