12 January 2011

The persistence of patronage politics

Former auditor general Elizabeth Marshall made the news this past week in her new capacity as a Conservative senator from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Senator Marshall racked up $51,000 in airfares in a three month period, making her the senator from the province with the highest spending on travel.  According to Marshall’s staff the whole thing was for business class travel between St. John’s and Ottawa.  It’s really expensive to commute to work these days, especially when you live the better part of half a continent from the office.

Some people might credit Senator Marshall with uncovering what became known as the House of Assembly spending scandal.  She was trying to audit one member of the legislature almost a decade ago when the committee overseeing the legislature barred her from finishing the job.

When the scandal finally erupted into public view in 2006, the scandal shook the province’s political system.  Four politicians went to jail, along with the legislature’s former chief financial officer.  Millions of dollars of public money remain unaccounted for, despite an extensive police investigation, supposedly detailed reviews by Marshall’s former deputy and an investigation by the province’s top judge.

In one of those great cosmic coincidences, a local businessman involved in the scandal found out this week he’d be going to jail for upwards of three years. John Hand pleaded guilty to defrauding the public of almost half a million dollars.

Marshall didn’t actually uncover the spending scandal. She was focused on a particular member of the legislature whom she felt was using public money to purchase win and artwork for himself. A subsequent review by Marshall’s successor didn’t add significantly to what others had already found.

The more significant story, though, lay somewhere else.

Between 1996 and 2006, members of the legislature gave themselves the power to take money set aside to help them do their jobs as members of the legislature and to spend it on just about anything each of them deemed appropriate.  While some enriched themselves, and a few spent public money on women’s clothes, season hockey tickets or perfume, virtually all members of the legislature in that decade gave money to their own constituents.

In his lengthy report on the scandal, Chief Justice Derek Green described the practice  - and the problem - as eloquently as anyone might:

“First and foremost, the practice of making financial contributions and spending in this way supports the unacceptable notion that the politician’s success is tied to buying support with favours. Such things, especially the buying of drinks, tickets and other items at events, has overtones of the old practice of treating - providing food, drink or entertainment for the purpose of influencing a decision to vote or not to vote. As I wrote in Chapter 9, it demeans the role of the elected representative and reinforces the view that the standards of the politician are not grounded in principle. In fact, I would go further. The old practice of treating was usually undertaken using the politician’s own funds or his or her campaign funds. To the extent that the current practice involves the use of public funds, it is doubly objectionable.

Related to the notion of using public funds to ingratiate oneself with voters is the unfair advantage that the ability to do that gives to the incumbent politician over other contenders in the next election.”

For his part, former Speaker Harvey Hodder made plain his own attachment to the system this way:
"Some members, myself included, paid some of my constituency expenses out of my own pocket so I would have more money to give to the school breakfast program ... I don't apologize for that."
And former auditor general Elizabeth Marshall saw nothing wrong with the practice of handing out cash, often without receipt, with no established rules and for purposes which duplicated existing government programs.

What Chief Justice Green called “treating” is actually the old practice of patronage.  That isn’t just about giving party workers government jobs.  It’s basically one element of a system in which citizens trade their status as citizens for that of being the client of a particular patron.  The patron gets political power and the ability to dispense benefits of some kind.  In exchange, the client gives the patron support.  Explicitly or implicitly, as the Chief Justice stated, there's a connection between the favour and support.

In a model government bureaucracy, the rules that govern how a particular program works are well known.  Everyone in the society who meets the requirements would typically get the benefit of the program. 

But in a patronage system, the rules are hidden or there are difference between the formal rules and the ones that are actually used to hand out the benefit. The patrons and their associates control access to the benefits and so can reward people who comply with their wishes or punish those who do not.

There are as many variations on the patronage idea as there are societies.  The notion is well known in Newfoundland and Labrador politics. As political scientist George Perlin put it in 1971:
“Historically, the dominant factor in the Newfoundland context has been the use of public resources to make personal allocations or allocations which can be made in personal terms, in return for the delivery of votes.”
More recently, political scientist Alex Marland had this to say about the House of Assembly:
A final, but perhaps most critical, theme is the politics of deference towards charismatic power-hungry men and an outdated paternalistic ethos. Backbenchers, bureaucrats and journalists are scared to be on the wrong side of the executive for fear of harsh repercussions that can harm their careers. A massive spending scandal  occurred because, unlike Peter Cashin had done years before, nobody in the legislature had the courage or whistleblower protections to speak up about questionable expenses.  Political participation is sufficiently limited that interest groups prefer to meet behind closed doors and family networks continue to hold considerable sway within party politics. There is a historical pattern of democratic fragility and of  Newfoundlanders and Labradorians trusting elites to represent their interests.
Marland is understandably scathing in his criticism of politics in the province in the early years of the 21st century.  His assessment of the contributing factors  - way more than the paternalism mentioned above - is thorough and accurate even if his conclusion is a bit pollyannaish.

What’s more interesting is the way that seemingly unconnected events can relate to each other.  Those relationships explain much about the state of politics in the province.  Next, we'll add another element to the picture and discuss the Conservative leadership fiasco.*

- srbp -

*  In the original version this sentence read "Tomorrow" instead of "Next".  The second installment of this mini-series on patronage and local politics is going to take a bit longer to complete since so many rich examples can be found in current events.


Ursula said...

According to*, Marshall is making claims for travel she is yet to make .

Isn't that just a little bit fraudulent, and
isn't this how the spending scandal came about ?

*"Marshall spent almost $51,000 on travel in three months. Martin Suter, Marshall's executive assistant, said some of those bills are for future travel.

Nick said...

Ursula, the bills for future travel appear to be related to flight passes. These passes are packages that entitle the purchaser to more than one flight.

As such, I don't think it is even one little bit fraudulent to buy a flight pass that would entitle a person to x number of flights during one accounting period, use a number less than x during that accouting period, and have the right to future travel during a subsequent accounting period.

While it is unfortunate that it costs money to have a senator fly back and forth between Newfoundland and Ottawa, I don't really see any other way to convince good, qualified people to agree to serve in the senate. Restricting their travel back and forth to the Provinces which they represent would only isolate the senators from their consituents. Making them fly on their own dime would make it a job only the well off could afford.

If you look at the expense reports, you will find the highest claimants are the people that travel a long distance, to smaller airports (i.e. NL, YK, MB).

I'm certainly willing to be persuaded that there is a better way to deal with the expenses of senators, but I think a close connection with their constituents is essential, as is the ability to work in Ottawa when needed. Furthermore, the scrutiny we see nowadays about expenditures frequently gets blown out of proportion, which can have the effect of discouraging people from incurring legitimate expenses and as a consequence, doing a lesser job than they could have otherwise.

Ursula said...

" Making them fly on their own dime would make it a job only the well off could afford".

Nick , I maybe wrong but, isn't Elizabeth Marshall one of the wealthiest women in the province ?

Edward Hollett said...

Thanks, Nick, and he's right Ursula. A number of people use these sorts of tickets as a way of lowering cost overall. There's nothing particularly odd about that sort of thing.

As for her personal net worth, I personally don't think that is of any concern or relevance to the discussion. I was much more concerned with her acceptance of patronage spending.

LGH said...

Yes, but why travel business class? She should come back into cattle class with the common folk; those people she purports to serve.

Ursula said...

Apparently Marshall has yet to buy passes according to Suter :

"He said Marshall is going to try to bring her costs down by buying business class passes"

Patronage politics , the unfettered spending of taxpayer's money , a sense of privilege , are they not all symptoms of the "moral turpitude", that can be found in today's political system ?

Nick said...


I think you are right in that she is one of the wealthiest women in the Province (or certainly in the top few percent). But my point is that being personally wealthy shouldn't be a pre-condition to being appointed into the senate.

And if you need $32,000.00 per quarter to pay for travel (taking her number) or $51,000.00 per quarter (taking the reported amount) to be a senator representing Newfoundland, you'd need to be willing to spend between $128,000 and $204,000.00 per year to do a job that pays a grand total of $130,000.00 per year. I don't think there are many people in Newfoundland and Labrador that can afford that option. All of the sudden, the pool of potential senators from Newfoundland goes from 500,000 down to maybe a couple of dozen.

And to my mind at least, the idea that only the rich senators should pay, and that other (poor)senators wouldn't have to pay wouldn't work for a number of reasons. First, it isn't fair. Second, drawing a line between the rich senators and the (poor) senators would be a very tricky prospect. (I'm putting (poor) in brakets because I think you can be pretty well off and not be able to afford to work full time for between $8,000.00 and -$74,000.00 per year). Finally, it wouldn't work in the long run. If Senator Marshall paid for all of her travel herself (which she may very well be able to afford to do), this story would still have been written. The only difference would be that all of the media would instead identify the second highest spender (from the Yukon), and Senator Marshall would have been able to avoid this attention / unwanted harsh media commentary. A different senator would be facing the harsh, unwanted media attention. Maybe this senator wouldn't be able to afford the travel. That senator is faced with the choice of enduring the harsh scrutiny and commentary, or reducing the frequency of his or her trips home to his or her constituents. Or, I guess, getting cheaper flights but not being able to have as much control over his or her schedule (and therefore missing senatorial stuff because they have a ticket that is non-refundable). And then all of the sudden rich senators are performing objectively better that (poor) senators only because they are rich. (Poor) senators would be subject to continued harsh media commentary (I firmly believe the dollar value doesn't matter - see below) whereas rich senators wouldn't face that scrutiny. Parties appointing senators would have to ask themselves before they appointed a senator from a far reaching portion of the country whether the individual is rich (and therefore won't be subject to harsh media commentary) or poor (and therefore will be the subject to harsh media commentary). It won't take long before being rich would be a precondition to appointment.

One thing that bothers me about these stories that are in the media concerning senate expenses is that almost all of the stories fail to mention the fact that none of the senators have exceeded the established guidelines for travel expenditures (or anything else). But, 'All Senators' spending within guidelines' doesn't sell newspapers, whereas 'Public Billed 51K for NL Senator Travel' does. We hear $51,000.00, and we think 'that's a lot of money'. But the same thing would hold if the number was $39,000.00, or $17,000.00 (think 'Public billed 17k so NL senator can fly home').

I'm rambling now, but what I'm trying to say is that while Senator Marshall may very well be rich, being rich shouldn't be a prerequisite for being a senator because we would unnecessarily exclude a wide range of excellent candidates.

Everett said...

It's amazing that Ms. Marshall already leads the country in spending, after been appointed just last January. When I first heard that it was a Newfoundland senator, I thought of Fabian Manning as he is often in the news making various announcements about federal spending in NL. I had almost forgotten that Ms. Marshall was in Ottawa.

Her office spending for that quarter was also very high at $27,000. I think that Ed should do an analysis on the Newfoundland senators, to see who costs the most.

In our own Provincial spending scandal, Ms. Marshall was no saint, as the Auditor General pointed out that she had done some double billing, & had some liquor purchases. The amounts were not large, but they did exist.