McNeil backslides on clean government hiring


Boss Tweed caricatured in Harper's Weekly

Four months ago, I leapt to the defence of former CTV Ottawa Bureau Chief Laurie Graham, whose appointment as principal secretary to Premier Stephen McNeil came under attack from anti-government scolds.

Today there’s a fresh kerfuffle about former Chronicle-Herald columnist Marilla Stephenson’s promotion to a newly created civil service position as liaison between the Executive Council office and government departments. Since October 2014, Stephenson had been working on contract doing outreach for the One Nova Scotia Commission.

The two hirings seem superficially similar, but they differ in one crucial respect.

Graham received a discretionary political appointment. When Stephen McNeil’s term as premier ends, so will her employment.

Stephenson received a civil service appointment. She has a job for life, and will continue to draw a salary long after McNeil leaves 1 Government Place.

To function in our system, every government needs a small number of purely political positions. An MLA’s constituency assistant. A cabinet minister’s executive assistant. A handful of trusted confidential employees in the premier’s office. No serious student of government disputes this.

As former Deputy Attorney General Doug Keefe wrote to Contrarian last March, “[O]ur system tries to keep a bright line between the politically neutral civil service, which has a duty to serve whomever the voters send, and the very small number of people who are partisan supporters of the party or office holder.”

The McNeil Government failed to keep that line bright when it custom-crafted a civil service position for one pre-selected confidant.

Records the Government Employees’ Union obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show the government initially hoped to hire Stephenson without a competition, but received advice it had to hold one.

So the senior bureaucrats charged with creating the position designed a “competition” so narrow as to remove all doubt about the outcome. They limited applicants to the handful of people working in the Office of the Executive Council. They invited Stephenson to personally vet the job description—an opportunity afforded no other candidate.

To no one’s surprise, Stephenson was the only applicant. The bespoke job won her a 27 percent raise, from $83,259 to $106,000.

Like any other premier, McNeil is entitled to create whatever political positions he thinks he needs. But he is not entitled to create permanent civil service positions and stock them with cronies.

Doing so harkens back to the corrupt practices of the Buchanan Government, one of the most wasteful and destructive periods in modern Nova Scotia history.

Contrary to whatever communications advice McNeil may have received, the flimsy contrivance that handed Stephenson an un-tendered job wasn’t helped by his brazen denial of favouritism obvious to all. This, too, calls to mind the facile dissembling of John Buchanan.

Getting politics out of civil service hiring took decades of struggle. Backsliding will not end well—for government or citizens.