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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.