Thursday, 21 June 2012

CONspiracy Theorists: Politics, Patronage and Partisanship

Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory (1997)
There are some people - let's call them non-Conservatives - who look at everything the government of Stephen Harper does with suspicion and, not surprisingly, see conspiracy around every bend. There is much in this current government to dislike. It is authoritarian, smug, secretive, dishonest, corrupt (to degrees) and, in many regards, undemocratic. Acknowledgement of this fact, however, often leads many casual observers down a spiral of idiocy.

It is one thing to condemn a government. It is quite another to condemn entire institutions as faulty or, worse yet, corrupt, simply because of the behaviour of one government. A government is not a reflection of an institution. Governments are transient. Their actions and policies can be reversed. Conversely, institutions are more permanent, yet not unalterable, but require a substantial degree of time to manipulate and change by a single regime. Stephen Harper, even with an majority, will be unable to fundamentally change our institutions. His impact, even if it is is detrimental, is reversible. The Parliament of today, after all, cannot bind future Parliaments.


This conflation of a government with the institutions through which it wields power is problematic, not the least because it is a false understanding of the workings of both. It is dangerous because it undermines the very mechanisms and customs which give breath to our democracy. To suggest that a failings of a government are the failings of an entire system is a thoughtless sentiment. Are these institutions perfect? No, and no political creation can be.

The appointment of a new Commissioner of Canada Elections illustrates another facet of this troubling trend. It underscores a kind of deep rooted - and, it must be said, partisan - cynicism. It also reveals just how deeply misunderstood the process of governance in Canada actually are, even by those who assert that they are avid political junkies and knowledgeable about such processes. Soon after the announcement, the CONspiracy Theorists were quick to pounce.

Of the sudden retirement of the incumbent insinuations were rampant. There must be something behind this shocking and sudden turn of events! No doubt many minds were filled with the ghastly image of William Corbett waking one morning to find his a bloodied horse head laying in bed next to him and of John Baird threatening an offer, from Don Harper, an offer he couldn't possible refuse. The simple reason - that an aging bureaucrat reaching the end of his career and exhausted by an increased work load - is immediately discounted. Occam's razor be damned.

Of the new appointee, Yves Côté, speculation also swirled. Clearly a lackey, Côté is an undercover agent sent in to undermine Elections Canada's probe into election fraud in the last general election! "Harper appointee",  many screamed. Only, of course, this isn't true. It is the Chief Electoral Officer who makes the appointment. This obviously blunts little of the CONspiracy theories. But Côté was, in his previous posts, a Harper appointee and, as such, owes a debt to the Prime Minister. And Mayrand, he was appointed under Harper, he do must be doing his boss a favour! This of course ignores that he received unanimous consent from the House of Commons in 2007. Partisan Hack!


As with any good conspiracy theory it is, of course, not provable. Moreover, the existence of facts to the contrary is not convincing. Some criticisms, however, coming on the heals of the week's other high profile Parliamentary story - the battle between the PBO and the executive - merely reduce one's patience to a pulp. Kevin Page , appointed under Harper (and as part of his highly touted 'accountability' legislation), should, as such, be a compliant servant of his political master. The same goes for recently installed Auditor General Michael Ferguson. And his predesssor, the indomitable Sheila Fraser, would certainly never have exposed wrong doing by the regime that appointed her.

The idea that an appointee is beholden to the government that appointed him or her is one that, quite frankly, should be met with a great deal of resistance. It raises a few related points about how Canadian governance has changed since the early days of Confederation and, in many ways, even in past decades.

First, patronage is not what it used to be. Part of the problem may well stem from the association of the term with an older system of governance. Yes, patronage remains a central feature of Canadian government, but it is qualitatively different than it was in the past. In the days of John A, and even into modern Canada, patronage meant bringing one's cohort along when power was achieved. This included friends, family and benefactors. When a new government came to power, it was expected that the old cohort would be removed along with the ministry. That is, quite thankfully, only the case in only a certain number of areas. In the core areas of government - the civil service, the judiciary and other high ranking appointments - there are a host of procedures and qualifications before a post can be filled. Meet, for instance, Canada's Public Service Commission. Even on areas where the Prime Minister retains exclusive prerogative, efforts have been made at a vetting process, including shortlisting and committee hearings. For instance, Supreme Court nominees have recently been subjected to committee oversight (something, I think, that is actually detrimental to the integrity of the judicial branch) as well as officers of Parliament, such as the Auditor General.

Patronage retains more of its original meaning - of rewarding friends and benefactors - in fewer areas of Canadian political life: chiefly the Senate and ambassadorships. This is perhaps more problematic in the Senate. I have argued previously in this blog that the Senate should be subjected to some standard for entry - indeed, I've gone so far as to suggest the chamber should be none partisan - as Canada's upper chamber is often subject to the most sustained attack. Yet the 'packing of the Senate' with party loyalists has not always resulted in deleterious effects. Political appointments, while lacking electoral legitiamcy, are not precluded from undertaking vital and important work (think, for instance, the Senate's role in the free trade debate). As far as ambassadorial appointments go, since these individuals are tasks equally with reflecting the desires of the government abroad, the impact of these appointments is negligible. An ambassador at odds with government on policy abroad is more of a problem than bad policy.

As a brief aside, the notion that Harper is somehow departing from precedent by 'stacking the Senate' misses the point. The Senate has always been appointed in such a manner, from MacDonald to Martin.Where Harper departs is, quite truthfully, in the quality of the Senators themselves.

It should be noted that there is a firm constitutional basis for patronage appointments and it is, ironically, the direct result of a process of democratization. Reality is often obscured by the appearance of practice and misunderstandings exasperated by Canada's often less than knowledgeable media. As such, a number of myths - that Canadians vote for parties; that we elect a Prime Minister; that a winning party is the government, among others - continue to propagate unchecked. The result leads to considerable confusion.

Historically appointments were made solely on the prerogative of the monarch alone. The Prime Minister (in British practice) or the Governors in the North American colonies, would be appointed by the Crown. As democratic sensibilities evolved, the powers of the Crown came to be exercised solely on the advice of the elected government in the person of the Prime Minister. Even further evolution in practice reveals a disjuncture between the myth and practice. While we still speak of many functions - including appointments - as being made by the Crown on advice, the reality is that the monarch has no active role in the decision making process and is (largely) bound by custom to agree to the advice. It is so often the case in Canadian politics that theory and practice are often not in agreement.

What is not in dispute, however, is that these functions remain executive prerogatives. This is a constitutional fact. I do not wish to belabour the point, but it is often taken that somehow Prime Ministerial appointments are an exception in the system and that these rights belong to Parliament. Indeed, there is confusion given that some appointments, by statute, belong to Parliament as a whole. However, in general, patronage is the realm of the political executive.


The reality is, contra the CONspiracy Theorists, that patronage appointments by and large have been disconnected from the notion that the appointment comes with strings. It serves no one's interests to undermine entire processes simply because one objects to the actor exercising the discretionary power. What is also painfully missing is the understanding of how deeply rooted patronage is - given the way power was localized in the Crown and subsequently been democratized - and how integral it is to the proper functioning of our institutions. From the upper layers of the bureaucracy to the judicial branch, most are patronage appointments. Those who attack the legitimacy and independence of individuals or institutions would be wise to remember this fact. When they attack patronage solely in an attempt to undermine the temporary holders of political office, they are questioning the very institutions underpinning and enabling Canadian democracy. From the justices who overturn legislation (contrary to the wishes of the government) to the Auditor General who uncovers wrongdoing, all have felt the hand political appointments. To suggest that appointees are beholden to politicians simply by virtue of their appointment is wrongheaded, unthinking and asinine. Canadians would do well not to follow CONspiracy Theorists down rabbit holes.

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