"Where the bee sucks, there suck I." William Shakespeare, The Tempest.
The CBC has a new member of its board of directors. The Conservatives have appointed 35-year-old Rob Jeffery. He is a Halifax chartered accountant. He is senior director of taxation for Sobey's, a leading food retailer. You may be wondering what other compelling qualifications the young man has to preside over the state broadcaster in our complex, ever-changing media world?
Well, there is something else. He recently served two terms as treasurer for the Progressive Conservative Party of Nova Scotia.
It hardly requires a stretch of the imagination to reason that he got the appointment because he's been a loyal worker for the party who will likely do its bidding in the further emasculation of the CBC which, as we know, is not one of the Prime Minister's most favoured entities.
Mr. Jeffery shouldn't be singled out. He is only one of countless numbers who, courtesy of our well-entrenched practice of patronage, get lovely appointments without having much in the way of qualifications. It's what the spoils system is all about. The gravy train. It's a problem much, much broader than Senate appointments.
The system, as detailed years ago in Jeffrey Simpson's book, Spoils of Power, has been part and parcel of every government, not just Stephen Harper's. Most every government comes to power promising to clean it up and then does nothing to clean it up.
But if there is some good to come from all the stench arising from the Senate scandal, it is that it may be generating enough public disgust to force real change.
Patronage was big news back in the 1980s, when Brian Mulroney knocked over John Turner with his celebrated "You had an option, sir!" castigation of the former Liberal leader's decision to countenance Pierre Trudeau's last-minute spurt of appointments of party members to cushy jobs.
The gravy train didn't stop under Mr. Mulroney or Jean Chrétien. As a young Reform Party backbencher, Stephen Harper sounded like he wanted change. "We don't think as a party that patronage has any place in the Parliament of Canada," he said in 1995. In 2005, as leader of the Official Opposition, he went further, stating that patronage "has got to stop, and when we become government, it will stop."
And actually he did have a fine idea to halt it, or at least slow it down. When he came to power in 2006, he created an arm's-length Public Appointments Commission to handle the thousands of appointments the government makes. But it never got off the ground. Mr. Harper couldn't get the opposition parties to approve of his nomination to chair the commission and so he went back to the old way and patronage is now as rampant as ever.
The Senate presents a special patronage problem because governments need Red Chamber support to get their legislation passed. This has led to the blatant favouritism in Senate appointments. If elected, the NDP and Liberals promise change. The New Democrats, who don't have any senators, vow to abolish the chamber. The question is how? And how, without any senators, they will get legislation passed in the meantime is an intriguing question as well. As for Justin Trudeau, he has cut party ties to all Liberal senators, hoping in this way to create a more independent chamber.
As for taking action on the broader scourge of patronage, Tom Mulcair promises to create an independent public appointments commission, the discarded Harper idea. Much would depend on the degree of independence such a commission would have. In the case of Mr. Trudeau, beyond his laudable Senate initiative, we haven't heard much. But he would be wise to stake out a big committment for patronage reform soon.
With the Senate fiasco, the time is ripe to take down the spoils system, a blight that has been with us since the dawn of time, which is a tad too long.