Important job, lousy choice

Bob
Bob Wakeham
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Patronage appointments are always easy targets for those of us armed with a newspaper column or a commentary slot on radio or television.

It’s as if you’re metaphorically at the plate in a softball game, and the patronage pitch floats slowly and invitingly over the plate, just begging for you to deliver a Babe Ruth-like swing.

And swing we should, because governments, provincial or federal and of all political stripes, should never remain unchallenged when they place friends in publicly funded jobs, appointments requiring only one vital credential: that the correct derriere had to have been smooched. 

There’s usually a bit of wicked fun to be had for pundits passing judgment on these muck-plastered episodes of politics at its most deplorable.   

Ordinarily, for example, I might cast a few Muppets characters to help describe the latest piece of greasy patronage. It might have gone like this: when Elizabeth Matthews was pocketing a sizeable chunk of loonies as Danny Williams’ chief flunky — ensuring his tie matched his shirt, his hair was parted in the right spot, and that he wore jeans only on the weekend — she was often referred to mockingly by some of her colleagues as “the little princess,” a nickname apparently earned through occasional bouts of snobbery.

 

Trough time

Now, though, a more appropriate moniker might be “Miss Piggy,” given her proposed trip to the patronage trough, one influenced directly or indirectly by her mentor, “Kermit the Frog” Williams, and rubber-stamped by “Big Bird” Dunderdale.

But I’m not going there (except for that brief departure from good taste) because there’s nothing amusing in this nomination by the Dunderdale administration of Matthews to the board monitoring the offshore oil industry; in fact, it should be viewed as one of the most scandalous and outrageous uses of patronage to be tolerated here in a long time. 

This isn’t just some ordinary plum pulled from the Tory tree, a spot on the liquor board or the housing corporation or some other Crown organization where government supporters can be rewarded for loyalty, places where the ass-kissers can collect a salary for past political postures. 

Matthews — unbelievably so — is being offered the vice-chair of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, not exactly a committee adjudicating rent in public buildings or determining the cost of a 40-ouncer.

This board is arguably the most important body operating in the province today, a group of people hired to keep a critical eye on offshore activities, a mandate that includes (as has been noted by others reacting to this nauseous nomination) the safety of those who make their living on the rigs, the task of trying to ensure there is no repeat of the Cougar Helicopter or Ocean Ranger tragedies. 

And the government has relegated that vice-chair assignment, that crucial position, to one of its friends, a payback for a job well done, for having sold her master’s wares in such a masterful way. Elizabeth Matthews was a public relations flack (officially called the director of communications), a backroom hack.

She was not a master of original thought, a creator of policy.

She merely took her leader’s words and massaged the message. It boggles the mind: Dunderdale and company want a spin doctor in a job in which spin-doctoring should be viewed as absolutely sinful.    

Bad choice of job

If Dunderdale was determined to provide Matthews with a post-Danny paycheque, why didn’t she just put in a call to her new friend, Stephen Harper? Talk up a Senate appointment, complete with a snooze button, and the potential for afternoon naps with the likes of Elizabeth Marshall, George Baker and Fabian Manning.  

Or she could have designated Matthews as the “spokeswoman,” the press officer, the public relations guru, the stooge, for some government agency, a position that could see full exploitation of her stroking-the-message talents.

But Dunderdale did the unthinkable. 

The new premier could have performed honourably here, revealed some spine, rejected Matthews’ name out of hand and let the province know in no uncertain terms that the eighth floor of Confederation Building was to be a place devoid of patronage decisions; that people would be hired based on their qualifications, not — first and foremost — on their political affiliation.

But she has bought membership into the old boys’ club.

All that has changed is the gender.  

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: Crown organization, Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Confederation Building

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Not a wakeham fan
    March 13, 2011 - 10:07

    Interesting thoughts Mr. Wakeham. You speak as though an authority with inside information. While undoubtedly a very wordy article you have written, the content is not consistently factual. You are clearly adequate at spinning, but exceedingly repetitive. Saying the same thing over and over but changing up the metaphors and varying the words is tiring. My thought throughout your entire boring article was 'Oscar the Grouch"... Your article sounds very personal. Maybe Ms. Matthews snubbed you at some point because she found you to be equally as boring and tiring as do I.

    • Mike
      March 13, 2011 - 16:27

      If you're not a Wakeham fan, don't read the Wakeham column.

    • JT
      March 14, 2011 - 14:25

      Surely one does not have to be a fan of Wakeham, or agree with Wakeham's article to read it and form an opinion. I'm sure Wakeham has thick enough skin to absorb a little criticism, if not he can probably look for a job penning stories for Sesame Street characters.

  • Merit Principle
    March 12, 2011 - 19:38

    Unfortunately I have to agree with you. I say unfortunately because, unlike you and the Telegram generally, I am not a perennial Williams basher. I have disagreed with some of his decisions and called him out from time to time for 'unnecessary roughness'. But on balance, I think his tenure as premier has been remarkably good for this province and he may well go down as the best since confederation.That said, this is the most disappointing and offensive political appointment in this province in a long while. Your brother-in-law might be a nice guy and a cracker jack plumber but you wouldn't appoint him to head up the police department just because you could. You'd have enough sense to know his lack of qualifications and experience would put public security at risk. Well it is not an exaggeration to say that the economic security of this province for the foreseeable future hinges on our ability to extract the maximum income and benefits from the oil and gas industry while at the same time protecting the safety of its workers. Any professional background - law, engineering, accounting - might satisfy the basic prerequisites for the job but what it absolutely demands is the judgement, maturity and public respect that one generally accumulates over a long career demonstrating success in a diversity of highly responsible posts - preferably in both the public and private sectors. Let's put it this way - if you hired a head hunter to find a new president for Memorial University because you thought it essential that we have the absolute best, why wouldn't you do the same thing for the Vice-Chair of the CNOPB. And if you did avail of a head hunter, Mathews would not make it into the top 100 candidates. Yes, Williams may very well be the one who orchestrated this odious appointment, but Kathy Dunderdale is the one who bears all the responsibility. She could have said "ask me for some other parting favour Danny, but this one is too important to pass over to a relative neophyte with no public presence, poor people skills and no direct experience in the industry. How about we ask Harper to make her a senator? She can't be any less deserving than Fabian Manning or Mike Duffy."