It’s time for some straight talk about patronage appointments

They’ve greased the wheels of our political machine forever — and yet we still can’t seem to get patronage appointments right
By Steve Paikin - Published on July 8, 2019
Doug Ford and Dean French
Premier Doug Ford and his former chief of staff Dean French, whose connections to government patronage appointees have caused controversy in recent weeks. (Chris Young/CP)

Comments

X

The subject of inappropriate patronage appointments in Doug Ford’s government has reared its head dramatically in the past couple of weeks, and it makes me wonder: Is it actually possible to have an adult conversation about this?

I’m doubtful — but let’s give it a shot, shall we?

First of all, let me say something that no self-respecting journalist is supposed to say: I have no problem with patronage.

Let me clarify.

Every new government comes to power needing to fill literally thousands of jobs in the agencies and on the boards and commissions of the province of Ontario: it appoints everything from the LCBO’s chair of the board, who’s responsible for ensuring the smooth operation of an agency that puts more than $2 billion a year into the province’s coffers, to the members of the Normal Farm Practices Protection Board, which resolves disputes between agricultural enterprises and municipalities when the normal business of farming conflicts with, for example, town bylaws.

It only makes sense that a government would fill these jobs with people who are ideologically like-minded. It would make little sense for a new government to staff up those jobs with opponents determined to thwart its agenda at every turn.

Let’s acknowledge from the outset that there’s nothing wrong with governments putting their supporters in these jobs. If the premier ultimately has to defend the decisions these folks make, he should be able to trust them.

So, of course, it was perfectly logical for Doug Ford to appoint, for example, Jenni Byrne to a position on the Ontario Energy Board, which he did four months ago. Byrne is a lifelong conservative who’s had experience in both Stephen Harper’s prime minister’s office and Ford’s premier’s office, and, while she may not be an expert on energy policy, she should be able to get up to speed in relatively short order.

Sometimes, it makes sense to appoint someone from another party to a key position. When the Crown-owned Ontario Power Generation made headlines five years ago for all the wrong reasons — the board had given itself what Kathleen Wynne, the new Liberal premier, considered overly generous salary bumps, pensions, and benefits — Wynne reached across the aisle to find a solution. She appointed former Progressive Conservative New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord to chair the company. The move ensured that Wynne wouldn’t be accused of sticking a Liberal crony in the role, and, by all accounts, Lord did a good job of straightening out the mess at OPG; he left the post just last month.

Neither of those appointments — nor thousands of others like them — caused much of a ripple when they were announced, because everyone understood that both Byrne and Lord had the skills and qualifications to do their jobs.

But what about when appointees can’t do the job — or at least don’t have the credentials or experience to suggest they could? That’s the kind of patronage that can harm governments, as Ford is discovering.

Having watched Ontario politics for more than three and a half decades, I have seen my share of questionable appointments. But I can scarcely think of any more egregious than those that Ford’s former chief of staff, Dean French, tried to sneak through cabinet when the boss wasn’t looking. What’s particularly galling is that these appointments run counter to Ford’s brand, which is all about stopping the so-called gravy train.

The worst of these appointments was that of Tyler Albrecht, a 26-year-old with less than two years’ work experience, who was to become the province’s trade representative in New York. Albrecht appears to have received the appointment because he played lacrosse with French’s son. The job didn’t even exist before Albrecht — it had been eliminated almost three decades ago by the NDP government as a cost-saving measure. Even if this new government had decided, in its wisdom, that the position should be restored, the idea that Albrecht met the criteria for such a position is dubious in the extreme. Having recently spoken to someone who filled the role for Ontario decades ago, I’ve learned that the job, above all, requires someone with a vast network of business, government, and media contacts.

Same problem for Taylor Shields, a cousin of French’s wife, who somehow merited appointment to be the trade rep across the pond in London. Before that job, too, was eliminated, it had been held by such luminaries as Robert Nixon; he was given the position in 1992 by then-premier Bob Rae, even though the two weren’t in the same party.  (Nixon was a four-time Liberal leader, while Rae led Ontario’s New Democrats to that party’s first and only election victory.) Nixon, whose father was premier of Ontario in 1943, was steeped in politics, having himself served as an MPP for nearly 30 years. There was scarcely any file the province of Ontario had to deal with that Nixon didn’t know something about. As the self-described parsimonious old farmer from Brant County often joked, once he got to London, “We made sure the Brits bought a helluva lot of Ontario beans.”

We’re told that when Ford learned of these appointments, he became livid and rescinded them immediately. On some level, you have to feel sorry for Albrecht and Shields, who understandably were happy to have scored such wonderful positions. On another, you have to be appalled that French thought these appointments demonstrated good political judgment on his part. A wiser chief of staff, or at least one with some experience in provincial politics, would have known that these moves would prompt howls of outrage.

Two other trade reps were also appointed: former PC party president Jag Badwal (who is to be posted in Dallas) and Earl Provost (Chicago), who worked in the Toronto mayor’s office during Rob Ford’s tenure and, oddly enough, has also served as executive director of the Ontario Liberal Party. Apparently, neither of these men has links to French, and so their appointments are still going ahead, although they possess no obvious qualifications for the jobs.

Another problem with appointing people manifestly unqualified for special jobs is the collateral damage these decisions can create. Seven months ago, Kat Pal, French’s niece through marriage, was appointed to the Public Accounts Council, a government commission that ensures the province follows proper accounting principles. I’ve done some nosing around and have learned that Pal was more than qualified for the role — but the optics of retaining a “French appointee” were problematic. She resigned her position despite no allegations that she was unqualified to do the job.

Then, toward the end of last week, Peter Fenwick was unceremoniously fired as Ontario’s strategic-transformation adviser. In fact, his entire office was eliminated. Fenwick seemed more than qualified for the job, having been a senior provincial director at Alberta Health Services and worked at GE Healthcare. Last November, the then-secretary to the cabinet, Steve Orsini, sent a memo to all deputy ministers stating that Fenwick’s “deep experience in the use of technology will support all of government initiatives to drive greater efficiencies in the delivery of public services.”

However, the Toronto Star reported that Fenwick had also known French for many years and had been a life-insurance customer of French’s for two decades. The optics of that apparently doomed Fenwick, who had moved his family from Alberta to Ontario to assume his new role. I’ve never met nor spoken to Fenwick. But was it fair for him to be collateral damage in this new crusade to root out anyone with ties to French?

Finally, and perhaps most significant for the Tories, inappropriate patronage appointments can destroy the bond of trust that a leader creates with his party’s grassroots — especially if some people in those grassroots, hoping for an appointment to something, are left waiting. One can imagine cries from the Tory heartland of “I’m still waiting for anything, and this guy got what?”

Bobby Armstrong is a Ford Nation man. He volunteered his butt off for Ford during the PC leadership campaign and the ensuing provincial election. He describes himself on Twitter as a “Political Activist & Real Data Junkie. Disruptor, Patriot, Interrupter.” He spends an inordinate amount of time on the platform opining to his 25,000 followers about the issues of the day. He didn’t support Ford for the payoff of a future job but, rather, because he believes in the premier.

As he put it in an email to me: “I don’t want anything. I have never worked in an office, hate suits and office politics.”

But Armstrong confessed that these appointments make him shake his head.

“Dean worked hard on the campaign and has known Doug for 25 years,” he wrote. “But you just can’t appoint your friends in Government. That was Doug’s mistake because he is extremely loyal and has a big heart. But Dean’s appointments were bad for the brand because Ford promised to do Government differently.

“I’m disappointed to be honest,” Armstrong continued. “Very disappointed. This party is fucked up.”

When the most loyal followers you have start talking this way, you’ve got a problem.

The beginnings of a solution to the problem would be for Ford to hire a smart, professional chief of staff, one who has no interest in feathering the nests of himself, his family, or his friends. Jamie Wallace has the job on an interim basis, having taken over from French. A former top editor and journalist at the Toronto Sun, Wallace has been around politics for decades, knows the province inside and out, and is bright enough to get up to speed on government in no time. The job he has is not the job he sought when he agreed to leave the Sun for a lesser role in the premier’s office. But he’s now got it, and I’m told by high-ranking Tory officials that the chief of staff’s job is Wallace’s to lose.

I have no idea whether any of Wallace’s kids play lacrosse, but if they do, my bet is that you won’t see any of their teammates show up on a list of future government appointees.

Related tags:
Author
Thinking of your experience with tvo.org, how likely are you to recommend tvo.org to a friend or colleague?
Not at all Likely
Extremely Likely