Not to be overly cynical, but how many times can people profess to be shocked by the way politics works, and has always worked?The latest case in point is the so-called cronyism scandal in Ontario, which is said to have rocked the government. Veteran media commentators are astounded that Premier Doug Ford’s former chief of staff, Dean French, appointed people he knew to a variety of positions, some big, some trivial. Was this even remotely surprising?The problem with patronage appointments, or cronyism if you prefer, is when the crony is laughably unqualified for the job. That was the case when French appointed a 26-year-old kid who was going to make $165,000 to represent the province in New York. His primary qualification for the work was a friendship with French’s son.French lost his job for that, and he should have, but the continued effort to sniff out more cronies has caused the resignation of a chap who used to buy insurance from French and another who was appointed to a board that sits six times a year and pays members $275 a meeting. That’s not a plum, it’s a prune. The provincial government appoints nearly 3,200 people to various boards and positions. It would have been surprising if some of those appointments did not go to people who donated their time or money to help get the government elected, or to individuals that people in the new government know and respect.The Ford government certainly isn’t the first to give preference to its own supporters. One need only reach back to the Kathleen Wynne government to see pollster and marketing expert David Herle collecting over $1 million in government contracts in between stints as a top Wynne campaign official.Despite all the faux shock, the cronyism scandal we keep hearing about is really just business as usual for government. For Ford, that’s actually the problem. When you run promising to clean up the previous government’s web of cronyism and connections, people don’t think your next step is to build a new one. That makes a person seem like a hypocrite. On this point Ford, like Justin Trudeau, is not as advertised.
Doug Ford’s former chief of staff, Dean French.
Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Perhaps it was too much to hope that Ford would end the symbiotic relationship between politicians and those who help them get elected. It’s a system that goes back at least as far as the Romans.Being a politician means asking people for money, time and votes. Some of those people expect something in return. It could be as simple as a call back or help sorting out a problem with the bureaucracy.For the skilled political pros that every party relies on to run their campaigns, it’s different. Many are lobbyists as well as political volunteers. If your team wins, that’s good news. Politics, like most things, is a relationship business. Knowing the people in power opens doors.When Ford said this week that “no one influences my government,” people in the lobbying industry must have been reaching for their phones to reassure clients. Surely they aren’t paying all that money for nothing. What Ford should have said is “no one unduly influences my government.” Of course his government is influenced by lobbying, just as it is influenced by all kinds of groups that can’t afford lobbyists.When it comes to rewarding its own supporters, don’t expect any future government to be different
There is nothing wrong with corporations or groups using lobbyists to make their case and there is nothing wrong with politicians considering their points of view. Those points of view should always be weighed against the wishes of the tax-paying voters, the advice of the public service and the party’s own ideology.Lobbyists and their clients have their goals, but for government, the overarching one is always getting re-elected. It’s pretty much impossible to lobby your way to an action that interferes with that priority. It’s a curious kind of safeguard in the system, but a safeguard all the same.Ford is taking a beating over patronage partly because people who are determined to get rid of him think that if they can build a big enough bonfire, caucus or the party will push him out. Bad news, if that’s your hope. The only way to get rid of a PC Party leader is at a leadership review after he is defeated in an election.It’s certainly fair to criticize Ford for letting his administration take political favouritism to foolish levels, but when it comes to rewarding its own supporters, don’t expect any future government to be different.Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and former Ontario PC candidate. Learn about his new book Spiked at randalldenley.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org