Monday, 2 March 2020


Patronage is all too often a license abused. The rites of political leadership empower politicians to make appointments outside a screening process reserved for the middle and lower ranks of the public service. The practice, while necessary, does not always secure the best and brightest; at times the nod is given to a person on the basis of demonstrated loyalty to the Party in power, or just because they are a friend. That practice is called cronyism.  

Politicians find solace — not that any is needed — in the dictum that patronage, left to bureaucrats, will be afforded the very same standard to which politicians adhere. The argument goes: why should politicians defer such opportunity to bureaucrats when the responsibility and the opportunity is theirs. The argument fails, however, when a generally decent system of meritorious selection is corrupted because the appointees are not up the job or are installed in inappropriate positions.  

All appointments, whether Judges, Board Members or CEOs, deserve a dignified commendation when they are sagely prescribed. Appointments to the senior level of the public service, however, even after screening for professional competence, require additional discretion, if only because they may become anomalous with the (typically) meritorious chain of a large bureaucracy. Otherwise, such interference may impact the behaviour of a large part of that chain. 

The Carla Foote case dropped off the media’s radar following the non-announcement on rate mitigation and Premier Ball’s long overdue resignation. But it ought not to have disappeared from the public’s mind. It is an important policy issue simply because of the potential dysfunction such appointments pose for professional public administration.
Carla Foote - Chris Mitchelmore (Photo Credit: CBC)

At the outset, Carla Foote — or any other public servant — deserves better than to have earned only the undignified representation given by Premier Ball and Chris Mitchelmore. Watching Ball hide behind a weak Minister who, at first, was kept on lock-down and, later, found slinking into the House of Assembly to avoid reporters’ questions, must have been as shocking an experience for her as it was for the public.

Another in this ignominious class is Siobhan Coady, who wilted upon first news of Gordon McIntosh’s expensive sinecure. Ball’s news release read: the Nalcor vice-president and the chief of staff, Greg Mercer, “mutually agreed” to the selection. There was no reference to the Minister responsible. The story having broken, Siobhan Coady put on her running shoes: “Let me be crystal clear: at no point did I have any involvement in Aberdeen International's contract, or in any discussions around the contract,” she told the CBC. The public is treated to an admission of her irrelevance rather than a defense of McIntosh’s credentials or a justification as to why she is still the Minister.

The tawdry behavior of the three may, nevertheless, be instructive to others that, if a particular patronage appointment cant be defended, they just shouldn’t make it.  That said, the larger issue is this: A Premier respectful of the traditions and hiring practices of the Public Service would not have interfered with The Rooms’ administration in the first place. Secondly, the Premier ought never to have imposed Foote, a political staffer, on the Executive Council Office or to have repeated the practice, as he did just a couple of weeks ago.

Even if we accept that patronage will always be with us, no one should dismiss the corrosive effect on public servants who have earned their positions on a meritorious basis.

An interview with Premier Ball by the CBC’s Anthony Germain, over the Foote affair, is especially instructive because in it Ball omitted any distinction between the service of bureaucrats and that of political appointees. Personal experience affords me quite a different view. While both jobs constitute a necessary public service, each is different. One is transitory and partisan, the other permanent and politically neutral. Those are important distinctions. Interfere with the Westminster model — as the impartial bureaucracy is known — and expect a far more embittered, politically motivated, underproductive and dysfunctional public service.

Carla Foote may well be a model of professionalism, but absent a lengthy recess from partisan politics, her partisan credentials disqualify her from a senior role in the public service. She, and her political benefactors, should know that that is part of the price of having accepted a role in the political arm of government. Foote should be very proud of having had the opportunity to serve, but her next career move should have been most anywhere else. The Premier had the authority to appoint her but, in deference to the essential neutrality of the bureaucracy, it is a right to be exercised only in the rarest of circumstances. Since the Williams era, far too many at the senior Departmental level have been installed in consequence of their partisan pedigree.

While the public may have been offended because the McIntosh sinecure is dubiously expensive and possessed of conflict-of-interest, the Foote nomination seems to have caused a stir because a cherished institution — The Rooms — was imposed upon for a less than noble purpose. As justified as the outrage may have been, I suggest that the public ought not to see their interests quite so narrowly.