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Is the public too cynical about all the Harper appointees with Conservative ties?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday May 28, 2013.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Patronage used to be a dirty word. Canadians elections have been lost because of it.

But patronage does not seem to be the scandal it once was. And the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not appear particularly worried about the negative impressions created by appointing party insiders.

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The Globe and Mail reported this week that at least half of the 46 people named, to date, to a new Social Security Tribunal have obvious and direct ties to the federal Conservative party or one of its provincial counterparts.

But one does not have to look very far to find other recent examples of links between the Tories and the people who have been given plum jobs at federally controlled boards, commissions and agencies.

Let's take a look at the nine-member board of the Toronto Port Authority, seven of whom are appointed by the federal government. Of those seven appointees, four have ties to the Harper government or the Ontario Progressive Conservatives.

Jeremy Adams was the campaign manager for Jim Flaherty, who is now the federal Finance Minister, when Mr. Flaherty ran for the leadership of the provincial party in 2004. Sean Morley also worked for Mr. Flaherty. So did Craig Rix. Robert Poirer has raised funds for the Ontario PCs. A fifth appointee, Jim Ginou, is a Conservative fundraiser who was appointed by the city of Toronto under the administration of Mayor Rob Ford.

Or how about citizenship judges?

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney appointed seven on May 1, three of them with Tory backgrounds. Benson Lau was a federal Conservative candidate in the Toronto riding of Scarborough-Agincourt in 2008. Karen McMillan ran for the Ontario PCs in York South-Weston in 2007. And James McCrae is a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister in Manitoba.

Which is not to say these people are not qualified. But the judges earn between $91,800 and $107,900 a year for full-time work and between $460 and $540 per day if they are part-time, like Mr. Lau. So these are rather well-paid positions that are likely to be of interest to a lot of Canadians.

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The issue of patronage is hot this week, of course, because of the trouble in which three of Mr. Harper's appointees to the Senate, and one appointee of a previous Liberal government, find themselves.

Mr. Harper, who came to power promising that he would not make Senate appointments, appointed a senator to sit in his first cabinet and went on to name more than 50 of them – many of them prominent members of his party.

Of course, Mr. Harper also promised, before winning his first government, that he would create a public appointments commission. But when the opposition questioned the credentials of the man he picked to be its chair, the Prime Minister determined that no one would get the job and the commission was scrapped last year.

When asked in 2011 about hundreds of patronage appointments he had made to that point in time, Mr. Harper replied: "If you look at those nominations, if you look at the appointments our government has made, you will find that two-thirds of appointments have no links at all with the Conservative party."

Which implies that the remaining third did have such links. And the makeup of bodies like the Social Security Tribunal and the Toronto Port Authority would suggest the ratio has only become more lopsided.

But does this hurt him? Or have Canadians lost their sense of outrage about the fact that governments of all stripes dole out favours to their faithful?

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Patrick Smith, the director of the Institute of Governance Studies at Simon Fraser University, said he suspects that we are becoming more inured to patronage – and that has contributed to a democratic malaise. "If you try to dig down a little bit in terms of why people are voting less, there is a whole range of reasons," said Dr. Smith, "but one of them is lack of trust in the system."

It's especially true when politicians like Mr. Harper wrap themselves in a shroud of accountability and say they will do things differently, he said.

Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at University of Toronto, said people can get excited about patronage during election campaigns. The rest of the time, said Dr. Wiseman, there is just an underlying cynicism. "In a way," he said, "it's business as usual."

Gloria Galloway is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.

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