04 March 2011

Patronage, pure and simple

Take out a piece of paper and a pencil and it wouldn’t take you very long to write down the names of men and women from the private or public sector who are qualified by their experience to take on the job of vice-chair at the federal-provincial agency that regulates the offshore industry.

Limit the list to just women and you’d still have a fair number of very capable people.

Elizabeth Matthews  - Danny Williams’ former communications director  - wouldn’t be on the list anywhere.

She wouldn’t be left out of consideration because she isn’t smart or capable in her own right.  It’s just that she lacks the experience necessary for the job.

It’s that simple.

By proposing to appoint the unqualified Matthews as vice chair of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Kathy Dunderdale has shown exactly the same tendency to propose unqualified people for very important jobs her patron had.  Andy Wells, the former mayor of St. John’s is perhaps the best example of that. 

However, Andy Wells is surely not the only example of an appointment that left many people scratching their heads in bewilderment or – as again with the Matthews appointment – setting teeth on edge in the province’s oil industry. They might have understood appointing Danny Williams’  former chief of staff who is also looking for a new gig now that Williams has left politics.  At least, Brian Crawley had work experience in the industry on the Hibernia project.  For the past couple of weeks though, the movers and shakers in the local oil patch are shaking their heads at the sort of appointment one might find in some banana republic rather than in a Canadian jurisdiction that aspires to be among the world leaders in regulating a complex industry.

Conservatives are trotting out the idea that Matthews will somehow change the communications practices at the board because of her work experience.  The board already has a competent and experience public relations practitioner, for one thing and Matthews certainly isn’t needed for that.  What’s more important to realise in that regard is that, as others have pointed out, Matthews helped to create and sustain one of the most secretive political machines in the province’s history. 

What both the provincial [and] federal governments ought to have done in this case is what the position warrants:  an open competition in which the successful candidate is appointed based on merit.  That’s how such a senior position ought to be filled.  That’s how they filled the chairman’s job a few years.  The process wound up a mess [in that case] simply because Danny Williams intervened to try and foist his blatantly unqualified whim onto a process that was supposed to be driven by merit. Just because the law says appointments like this are made by cabinet does not mean that they must be handed out as patronage plums.

Merit ought to count for much more that it does with the current provincial administration.

- srbp -

*   Corrections in square brackets