Yesterday, talk show host Rick Howe and I were chatting about Marilla Stephenson’s appointment to a civil service position based on a fake competition in which she was—by design—the only candidate. Howe said it was the sort of behaviour Stephenson herself might have condemned when she was a political columnist for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.
“Unless it was the Liberals who did it,” I quipped.
It was a cheap shot—and as it turns out, dead wrong. When Premier Stephen McNeil did something uncannily similar shortly after his government’s election in 2013, then-columnist Stephenson denounced his patronage abuse in ringing terms. Twice.
McNeil’s friend Glennie Langille, a former CBC reporter, had been his director of communications until March, 2010, when she was dispatched to her native Pictou County to serve as “outreach officer.” In reality, she was preparing to run for the Liberals in Pictou West in the 2013 general election.
The election went well for McNeil but not for Langille, who placed a poor third to Tory Karla MacFarlane. No matter. Shortly after assuming office, McNeil named Langille the province’s Chief Protocol Officer at a salary similar to that of an MLA.
Columnist Stephenson was quick to pounce. “Never underestimate the potential for a politician to disappoint,” she wrote on December 2, 2013:
Any hopes that Premier Stephen McNeil planned a route on the high road careened sharply into the ditch Tuesday. Ironically, it was a political ambush completely of his own making.
With dozens of appointments looming on provincial boards and commissions in the months ahead, McNeil has begun with a backward step that sets a poor tone for voters’ expectations of qualified appointments and fair hiring practices in the provincial bureaucracy.
The premier has thumbed his nose at Nova Scotia’s civil servants by demonstrating preferential treatment for a party loyalist in filling the protocol job.
Two months later, a release of emails under the Freedom of Information Act showed how thoroughly the fix was in for Langille, just as a release of emails this week showed how the fix was in for Stephenson.
Stephenson pounced again in February 7,
2004 2014 column headed, “Brave new world, same old patronage.”
The more things stay the same in Nova Scotia politics, the more they stay the same.
Any voters who are in denial about how party loyalists access the spoils of power in the wake of an election victory may wish to take a spin through a collection of internal emails outlining how Glennie Langille became the province’s chief of protocol.
After the Langille appointment became public in December, McNeil defended his choice, saying she was qualified for the job.
But that, sadly, is not the point. The integrity of the public service — access to which is supposed to be based on merit, not patronage — is damaged when a premier feels compelled to remove a job from its jurisdiction in order to reward a good friend and political loyalist.
The premier declared in December that he was being “up front” about the appointment, and in almost the same breath defensively said Langille’s resume was the only one to land on his desk.
Of course it was. That’s exactly the way he engineered it.
This is not the sort of change Nova Scotians voted for when they chose the Liberals, and McNeil, to put Nova Scotia first.
There is one key difference between the patronage appointment Stephenson condemned in 2013 and the one she herself received in 2016:
Before naming his close friend Langille to be Chief Protocol Officer, McNeil lowered the salary from $100,000 to $85,000 and removed the post from the civil service. Langille would work on year-to-year contracts so the next government won’t be saddled with her appointment. The job Stephenson received this spring effectively converted work she had been doing on contract for $83,259 a year to a previously non-existent but now permanent civil service position at $106,000 a year. The next government will be stuck with her.
It’s tempting to end this post with some play on the words, “The more things stay the same in Nova Scotia politics…” But the truth is, Stephenson’s patronage appointment isn’t more of the same. It’s a quantum step backwards to the corrupt, unlamented era of John Buchanan.
[Thanks to Bruce Wark for steering me to the Stephenson columns.]