The trouble with counting on patronage

The pained reaction of Prince Edward Island’s citizenry to the departure of favourite son Lawrence MacAulay from the federal cabinet was entirely predictable, as was the outrage expressed elsewhere that it took so long to get rid of this particular soliciting-general. But the anger is being directed at the wrong target.

Although no one likes to see a minister doling out favours to relatives and cronies, everyone understands that it’s a politician’s time-honoured duty to get as much federal largesse for his or her region as possible. It has been that way for more than three decades, when regional development became one of the finest political patronage tools ever devised by a Canadian government. And if you can’t take care of that important responsibility, the sentiment runs, you probably weren’t worth electing in the first place.

It’s all part of a game as old as politics itself and is played everywhere in this country, though usually with more skill and finesse than was shown by the politically tone-deaf Mr. MacAulay.

The problem lies not with the practitioners or petitioners but with the public policies at the root of all the pork-barrelling. The real losers are not merely those who care passionately about ethics in politics, but the very people who are supposed to benefit from Ottawa’s generosity in the first place.

Critics who have done their homework have long noted that Atlantic Canada actually fared better before federal politicians turned to a mind-numbing plethora of programs to pour money and subsidies into outdated industries and projects with little economic chance of success and no lasting benefit.

And the problem of patronage in regional development isn’t just about the infamous Ding-wall, the $600,000 stone wall erected on the campus of the University College of Cape Breton, or the various peculiar business-fostering endeavours of the cash-dispensing machine known as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, which must have seemed worthy on paper. In a study released earlier this month, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies assailed the equalization transfers, employment insurance and “the activist economic development policy” that have been the mainstays of Canada’s “regional development tool kit.”

All one has to do is examine what’s happened since 1995, when federal budget cuts began taking their toll on transfers, and Atlantic Canadians began screaming that the cuts would destroy their economy. The exact opposite has occurred. Despite slower population growth or none at all, job creation has hit new highs for four years running, and significantly outstripped the gain in Canada as a whole.

The fact is that patronage is an awfully inefficient and ineffective development tool that tends to direct money where it could be most politically beneficial rather than economically productive.

There’s nothing tougher than getting politicians to abandon old habits, especially if they are convinced those habits keep them in office and brighten their career prospects. Look at what happened to the federal Liberals in Atlantic Canada in 1997. After placing some modest restrictions on employment insurance, they watched voters desert the party in droves. By the next election, the patronage taps had been reopened and the unpopular EI rules repealed. The Liberals roared back in riding after riding.

But just because something works at the polls doesn’t make it good policy. One of Atlantic Canada’s most pressing problems today is not unemployment but significant labour shortages in a host of service and other growth industries. Yet the EI policies protected by the Liberals have encouraged people to stay in seasonal work and away from the training they would need to qualify for better full-time jobs.

That’s why everyone should be up in arms over an old-fashioned patronage game whose time is long past and which has done far more harm than good to the very people who were supposed to be benefiting from it.