The Liberals’ new Independent Patronage Commission

An independent appointments commission, as it’s currently proposed, will do more to mask existing problems than actually solve them.

Well, it’s official. The person appointed by the Liberal government to steer the new independent appointments commission is…a prominent Liberal.

As prominent as you can get, in fact: former Liberal Premier Clyde Wells.

The Liberals couldn’t have done a better job of showing the public how thin their commitment to anti-patronage appointments is. Yes, other appointees to the commission include non-Liberals (all of them are corporate or political elites, of course). Yet the person at the top is the biggest patronage appointment the Liberals have made yet.

The debate over the Liberals’ first key policy proposal following their election last fall—an ‘independent appointments commission’ to vet and recommend candidates for dozens of government boards, commissions and other public bodies—sped by earlier this month with far too little public scrutiny.

The key principle behind the legislation is to move away from a history of ‘patronage’ appointments, whereby sitting governments tend to appoint their supporters to these public boards. The idea of an independent commission is that it would seek out the ‘best’ person for the job, regardless of political affiliation, by pursuing ‘merit-based’ appointments.

The proposed legislation came under fire from both Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats. The PCs, now that they’re on the opposite side of the bench, were concerned about the fact that under the legislation developed by the Liberals, the Commission itself is to be appointed by government, and that it simply makes recommendations which government is free to ignore.

The New Democrats were also concerned about these things, plus the fact that there’s no clear sense in the bill as to what constitutes ‘merit’ — so in the absence of any equity provisions, it’s likely to do nothing to change the current status quo.

Both PCs and NDP were right to be suspicious of this legislation.

The problem is who’s appointed, not how they’re appointed

What Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are rightly upset about is not that government appointments are being made by government. It is that government appointments continue to privilege and enrich a particular class of political elites. Many of them come from rich families, many of them are former politicians or businessmen, many of them are undoubtedly donors to political parties. They fit a common profile: they’re rich, they have extensive private business interests, they’re usually white and male.

The ‘independent appointments commission’, as developed and forced through by the Liberals, is not going to change any of that.

Newfoundland and Labrador has a problem, which is that it is still a society in which a tremendous amount of wealth and power is transmitted in a hereditary fashion and is controlled by a handful of rich families. It is, in other words, still a very unequal society.

Those rich families and the top income earners who hoard a disproportionate share of the province’s wealth are the problem. Only when their monopoly over the province’s wealth and political power is broken will we be able to move forward as a competent, modern democracy.

A new committee to appoint more of the same

One of the fundamental problems with the legislation as developed by the Liberals is the total lack of any sort of equity provisions. Given that it is rich white men who have access to most opportunities and leadership spaces in today’s society, it is they who will appear to be the most qualified and competent in the absence of any equity provisions. Not because they actually are more qualified and competent, but because they’ve had the money to buy themselves qualifications and competencies, and the privileges that others do not have to enter elite leadership spaces.

This is what entrenches a culture of inbred political elitism: money and privilege begets leadership and wealth-generating opportunities, which begets more money and privilege.

Take Stan Marshall’s appointment to replace Ed Martin as head of Nalcor. After his appointment, Marshall was quoted by media as saying, “It’s not really a job I want or need.”

Say what?

Why is a $600,000 job being handed over to someone who doesn’t even want or need it?

There are plenty of young engineers and entrepreneurs who would love nothing more than the opportunity to make a positive change in this province: skilled, talented women and men and people from rural corners of the province and Indigenous Peoples and others who would have been willing to take on that role with burning passion and do, objectively, what is best for the province.

But they will not have the opportunity so long as appointments are handed over to the moneyed elites, who claim they don’t even want the job (and certainly don’t need the money or opportunity).

That appointment is an example of precisely what is wrong with our province — that young (meaning anyone younger than retirement-age, really), passionate and diverse talents are deprived of the opportunities to apply their ingenuity and their passion to making this province great.

Pushing for equity

The debate that played out in the House last week illustrates the problems. The NDP proposed amendments to the legislation, to include equity provisions, which the Liberals rejected.

“Without guiding principles, without policy, without legislation, it does not work,” said NDP MHA Gerry Rogers, referring to the lack of equity and diversity in appointments. “Look at this House of Assembly!…The evidence is there.

“If we look at our boards and commissions…it’s embarrassing. Man. Man. Man,” Rogers continued, pointing at all the men surrounding her. “And unless we do something about it, it’s not going to change. It doesn’t get better on its own. We have to do something that’s proactive. It’s not just about representation of gender — the appointments have to reflect our province. If they don’t reflect our province, we’ll keep committing the same problem again and again and again. And we have to get out of that. It’s a vicious loop that keeps repeating itself. We need something that binds the Independent Commission to reflect on the diversity of the province in making those appointments.”

 An independent appointment commission that simply appoints more rich CEOs to government positions willremove a further layer of accountability by making it seem as though appointments are being made objectively…

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett gave a response that amounted to nothing more than a ‘trust us’.

“I can assure the member…that from a regulatory perspective, making sure that we actually have the regulations in place that provide the action that yields a result is something that’s very important to our government,” she said.

“There is no doubt that there is need for increased representation of women in all areas of government, including this House. Making that happen through the independent appointment commission and the regulations that will be in place will be certainly a responsibility that I won’t take lightly.”

By ‘regulatory regime’ Bennett is referring to the fact pieces of legislation passed by the House are accompanied by ‘regulations’ which outline the more nitty-gritty process of how the legislation is meant to be actually carried out in day-to-day practice. Those regulations are not debated in the House, but drafted by the appropriate department. That’s why the NDP have a beef with it — there’s no oversight, no opportunity for debate, and no way for government to be held accountable for how it does or does not implement equity. If it were included in the Act, however, government would have a legal obligation to ensure the regulations actually reflected equity principles.

Under fire over the issue (the Regional Committee on the Status of Women Councils of Newfoundland and Labrador also issued a statement condemning the legislation) Bennett has now said that the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women (PACSW) will weigh in on appointments. This is not good enough though, as PACSW is also a government body and therefore constrained in what it can say and do politically. As Rogers pointed out, without legislation mandating that the appointments reflect the province’s diversity, it simply will not happen.

A new way of doing same-old

An independent appointment commission that simply appoints more rich CEOs to government positions will not be the slightest improvement. It will remove a further layer of accountability by making it seem as though appointments are being made objectively, while in actual fact there are no provisions in place to ensure that it is not those already privileged who will continue to profit from plum government jobs.

The problem is not that we should take the politics out of appointments. On the contrary, we need to apply a new politics to appointments, one that values diversity over old hats in suits; one that values ingenuity and creativity over personal wealth; one that values youth and passion over elite privileges. By setting up an allegedly ‘independent’ commission, it’ll become even harder to challenge and critique the problem of privilege in government. The same types of appointments will be made, but they’ll be made under a veneer of ‘independence’ without actually making any structural change to who’s being appointed.

It’s sort of like painting over rotten wood in the hopes of hiding the rot. It won’t make the wood any sturdier — it’ll just make the problem more dangerous and harder to see.

What’s more, the legislation as it currently stands does not even require government to follow the recommendations of the Commission. The government continues to enjoy the right to appoint whomever it wishes.

It’s not just a flawed piece of legislation. It is, like so much else this government has done, a smokescreen pretending to be something new and innovative, while in actual fact preserving the status quo of elite privilege.

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