Canada

An Island tradition

Patronage in P.E.I. comes under attack

DOUG BEAZLEY November 3 1997
Canada

An Island tradition

Patronage in P.E.I. comes under attack

DOUG BEAZLEY November 3 1997

An Island tradition

Patronage in P.E.I. comes under attack

DOUG BEAZLEY

Cora Lee Aylward admits that it was not a sensational job. For $13.10 an hour and free coffee, the single mother acted as receptionist and researcher to Catherine Callbeck and Keith Milligan,

Prince Edward Island’s last two Liberal premiers. But de spite the low pay, the 27-yearold Aylward felt lucky to be employed: part other duties at the premier’s branch office in rural Prince County, 70 km west of Charlottetown, was often to field desperate pleas for work from local residents. Her gratitude was deepened by the knowledge that her own employment was precarious. Like many Islanders with government jobs, Aylward was well aware that personal politics— in her case, Liberal—could be come a liability. But in January, Aylward and two months after Pat Binns’s daughter Jilliam a Conservatives took over, she Liberal out of work was still unnerved to learn that she, too, would soon be looking for work. “I guess what hurt is the fact that nobody bothered to tell me until the last minute,” Aylward recalls. “Everybody knew about it but me. I guess there’s not a lot I can do about it now.”

For her fatalism, blame history. Prince Edward Island’s tradition of political patronage stretches back before Confederation, as much a part of Island life as potatoes and postcard views. Many politicians use the promise of patronage jobs to motivate campaign workers, a powerful incentive in a province where the unemployment rate is 13.7 per cent, compared with the national average of nine per cent. It is not uncommon for dozens, sometimes hundreds, of government employees to be replaced with every change of government, in positions ranging from department directors to asphalt crews.

There have been intermittent attempts to halt patronage, most notably the inclusion of a section in the province’s 1975 human rights act that prohibits “political discrimination”—hiring and firing on the basis of party affiliation. Old habits, of course, die hard, and so far the law has failed to help most of those who seek its protection. But recently, patronage has come under greater scrutiny. The wave of dismissals that followed Binns’s victory provoked an unprecedented number of political discrimination claims—more than 300. Partly as a result, the government has acknowledged that change is needed and has promised to toughen the existing law. “Many Islanders might say that if you get a job through patronage you should be willing to lose it to patronage,” observes Liberal Leader Keith Milligan. “But the vast majority of voters are sick of this.”

The last time ousted employees sought the statute’s protection, results were decidedly mixed. Those cases were launched following the 1986 election, when Joe Ghiz led the Liberals to power after a decade of Tory rule. Despite Liberal campaign promises to the contrary, many government employees with Tory connections were turfed from their jobs. A total of 118 claims for political discrimination were filed with the province’s Human Rights Commission; in 54 cases the commission found discrimination and recommended that the province pay cash settlements. (The remaining cases were dismissed for lack of evidence.) Instead, the government selected what it called two “test” cases from among the 54. Each was investigated by a private-sector lawyer, appointed by the government. After a month of study, a modest settlement was recommended in one case, and none in the other. Eventually, about 40 cases were quietly settled for undisclosed sums, but no fired employees were reinstated in their old jobs.

Some observers, however, maintain the two investigations were carefully orchestrated to avoid findings that might have embarrassed the Liberals. “It was a wheel-spinning exercise,” says lawyer Mark Ledwell, who worked for the Human Rights Commission in the early 1990s and has connections to the Tories. ‘The government chose the cases themselves, cases they felt the complainants would have a tough time proving.” The central problem with the law, Ledwell says, is that government ministers are too closely involved with its application. The attorney general—who may have participated in a purge—decides which cases are selected for a hearing, and even whether compensation will be paid. The result, Ledwell says, is that RE.I. governments feel free to flout the legislation.

To some, that is exactly what the Binns’s Tories have done. Since the election, the government has been plagued by accusations of partisan purges in the public works department, at the three government-owned golf courses and in the full-time civil service. And so far, only about 10 of the 300 political discrimination claims launched after the last election have been heard: in each case, the Human Rights Commission has failed to reach a settlement with the province.

There are signs, however, that attitudes may be changing. According to a recent poll, the Tories’ approval rating has dropped by 10 points since the summer, and Attorney General Mitch Murphy has acknowledged that the furor over patronage is partly to blame. Over the past month, he has moved to defuse some of that anger: his department is now planning draft amendments to the human rights act that will end the ministry’s involvement in the political discrimination claims process. And last week, a standing committee of the legislature began two weeks of public hearings to survey Islanders on what role—if any—members of the legislature should play in finding government work for their constituents. The hearings will continue after Christmas. Murphy also says he wants to ensure that, in the future, most public servants get their jobs through impartial competitions. While a 150-year-old tradition is unlikely to change overnight, there may be a few steps in the right direction.