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.