CIVIL SERVICE REFORM
AN ADDRESS BY PROF. G. M. WRONG
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
February 28, 1918
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN,--I am very glad that the topic that was to have been discussed by Mr. George T. Keyes, of New York, is before you; and although I do not know as much about it as some others who are sitting about this board, I am very glad to be able to say what little I can upon the subject.
We all know what patronage is, and it is so simple a thing that there is not much to be said about it, except that it ought to be abolished. It is like dishonesty, thievery, and things of that kind. It has had a very deep root in our public life. If you look at the report of the Earl of Durham on the Affairs of British North America, written in 1838-39, you will find he states what is wrong. He gives what is, to me, a beautiful instance of the patronage system. He tells how 110,000 were voted for local improvements by one Legislature-perhaps it was Upper Canada, perhaps Lower Canada-and that it was divided into 830 parts, each of about 112; a commissioner was appointed to expend each of those 830 portions, and he was to get five shillings a day while engaged in the task. One just wonders how much was left for local improvements after the commissioner and expenses incidental to that subdivision had been paid.
Professor George M. Wrong is Professor of History in the University of Toronto. He became interested in the matter of Civil Service Reform and made a very careful study of it.
The Club had arranged with Mr. Keyes, Secretary of the National Civil Service Reform League of the United States, to address a luncheon meeting. He, however, fell ill and Professor Wrong luridly consented to address us at a moment's notice.
Patronage means that all the gifts of the government--gifts of offices, and gifts in respect of the letting of public contracts--go to the friends of the government; that in respect of office it is not efficiency that counts so much as it is the capacity to get appointed; it is a different type of efficiency, and may not have a practical bearing upon the discharge of the duties of the office. In regard to contracts it means that the contracts go to the right people-the politician knows who the right people are. Mr. Bryce, as he then was, told me of what came under his own notice in New Zealand, where a public contract was to be given, and a tender came in for an incredibly low amount compared with the others, and the name of the tenderer was McPherson, who was found to be a Chinaman. On enquiring why he had assumed the name of McPherson, the Chinaman replied that he noticed that all the good things went to the "Macs," and he thought he might as well come in under that name. He was illustrating our system, evidently-that the good things go to the right people, in the view of those who have the gifts in their power.
This system has wrought incredible evil, and I believe it is true that in respect of it, Canadian politics have been much more degraded than those of any other English-speaking country. I do not think Australia or New Zealand or South Africa has had anything like the evils from patronage that we have in Canada; and the United States, which our high moralists are very apt to hold up to us as an example of how not to do things in politics, has never had a patronage system that is as bad as the system in Canada, because in the United States the executive power is divorced from the legislative power and can act independently of the members of Congress, and therefore is not subject to their word of command as to persons who shall get contracts and be appointed to office; whereas in Canada, with the executive depending on the legislative power, we have the members of Parliament practically controlling the whole thing.
Perhaps you will tell me that I am kicking something that is dead. A business man said to me the other day, "Why talk about the patronage system? It is all over."
I have always noted how innocent business men are compared with those initiated professors who are so deeply versed in all the wicked affairs of the world; still I could not believe that a business man could have been as innocent as that. Apparently, however, there are people who are on that level of innocence. The evil that patronage does is that it makes inefficiency easy to get and difficult to get rid of. I could tell of a post office--not in Toronto--where a drunken employee who was in a position somewhat responsible was dismissed some three years ago for drunkenness and inefficiency. Owing to the beautiful and intricate workings of the patronage system he was re-appointed after two years, and he is todayor was two weeks ago-back again in the office, as inefficient as ever. And yet he defied the official in charge of the office to get rid of him; he was there by political favor, and his superiors had no control over him, and he could go on robbing the country by taking pay for no service rendered, and of course marring the efficiency of public business. It destroys efficiency.
Then it is costly. I doubt whether any of us can make anything approaching an accurate estimate as to what the patronage system has cost this country. We have built more than one useless railway owing to the patronage system. We have built, or tried to build, canals, and I know of one case at least where we tried to build a canal which was found defective as to something that was supposed to be necessary to a canal-water. We have incurred expenditures which I think, speaking quite soberly, can be put in sums of hundreds of millions. One of our great railways, built by government, was estimated the other day by a high railway authority, who supposedly knows what he is talking about, to be likely to cost us, in the long run, $800,000,000, and a considerable portion of that railway was quite unnecessary. I am not saying it was corruptly built when it was undertaken; I am saying it was undertaken--in some of its stretches, at any rate--because of the patronage system; that it ought not to have been built in some parts; and we owe that huge cost to the intricacies of this terrible patronage system.
It is worse than that, though, because the system has penetrated the very souls of men, and that which corrupts the soul is a good deal worse than that which wastes resources, or results in inefficiency in administering affairs; and the patronage system has corrupted the very soul of this country. Many years ago I had an old friend, who is now dead, who told me that he was a member of the National Sanitary Commission of the United States during the Civil War. He had an appointment with Abraham Lincoln on some matter connected with the Commission, and on entering Lincoln's room the first thing he said was, "Mr. Lincoln, I want to say to you at once that there is nothing I want you to do for me in the way of a favor." There was a pad lying on the table, and Lincoln, pushing the pad over to my friend, said. "That is a very unusual thing to happen; would you mind putting it in writing?" Of course Lincoln said that with a twinkle in his eye, no doubt; but, you observe, it corrupts the stateman's estimate of men; he thinks it is hardly possible that he can have disinterested servants, but that they must have some private ends in view. It corrupts members of Parliament and other people; it gives a distorted view of values; it comes somehow to make them think that truth is falsehood, and falsehood is truth. They fix their minds upon something-a big thing in the view of the individual, a small thing from the national point of view, object to it at first, and step by step come to think that thing ought to be done, and other things that are for the national welfare are overlooked and not striven for as that thing is striven for.
At Oxford every year there is a boat-race called the "Eights," where the river is so narrow that the winner has to bump the boat in front of him. New College had been long high up on the river, and it happened one year that they had a coxswain named Peter, and the crew of the boat were very much annoyed at Peter, and the story goes that the following Sunday-I am saying this to illustrate how men will get things distorted-Spooner, the Warden of the New College, was reading the lesson, and came to a famous passage in Scripture, which he read in this way:-"And Peter coxed, and the crew went out and wept bitterly." You observe the effect of pre-occupation on the human mind. And many a good man goes into Parliament with the highest kind of ideals, with no thought that he is ever going to yield to pressure of a personal character, and after the various influences have worked upon him in some subtle way, his own view of things is distorted, and he yields and becomes amenable to selfish influences and interests, instead of standing in Parliament for the national well-being. The free souls of men are distorted by the selfish interests that cling to this patronage system. And so we have to get rid of it, and get rid of it very thoroughly.
I believe the present government is entirely in earnest in desiring to get rid of it. No government could have applied themselves more completely and frankly than this government has applied itself in regard to the patronage system. One of the essential things to keep in mind in regard to its abolition is this-that the member whom we send to Parliament shall have no voice whatever in naming persons to the public service, or in determining the persons who shall receive government favors. Now, we must carry that through very thoroughly. It has been carried through so thoroughly in England that a member of Parliament does not even get the small benefit of the privilege of franking his own letters. The member of Parliament in England gets no power put in his direct control; no doubt he has indirect influence. I am not as innocent as some of you business men are, and I am not quite sure that even with the abolition of the patronage system we are going to be living in an ideal world. Members of Parliament will always have influence, will be able to get things done for their friends; but we must at least go thus far, if we cannot go farther-that we shall not knowingly permit a system to exist that gives a member of Parliament any authority whatever in appointments to the public service, or in determining the people to whom public works shall go. Now, on the face of it that looks a reasonably easy task, but I venture to say that it is not so today; it is going to be very difficult. When we have Civil Service Reform we are going to have the public affairs of this country carried on in much the same way that the affairs of a great corporation are carried on. Take the Canadian Pacific Railway; I suspect there is not much patronage in connection with the administration of that railway, and yet their annual turn-over was nearly as big as the turn-over of Canada in our calmer days before the war. The reform of the Civil Service will mean promotions in the public service; but just to see where one difficulty is going to come in with regard to carrying out the reform, I want to give one illustration.
Take the post office, which will be administered under the system of carrying on the enterprise profitably-that is to say, by examinations of the Civil Service Commission we shall see that only fit persons are appointed to public service; and when they are in the service they will be promoted for efficiency, which will be the only consideration. I do not like to hear the sneering and sniffing at examinations as a test for entrance to the public service. I have administered an examination system for thirty-five years and after having had my doubts about the examination system, I say that I think it is, on the whole, about the best test we can give, if you have that supplemented with a further test in an actual trial of efficiency, and the holding back of a man who has not come up to the expectations that his examination might have offered, and the pressing forward of such men as have justified themselves. I believe that on the test of examinations the great majority of men will justify themselves, and prove themselves fit for the higher walks of the service.
When the reform of the service is thoroughly established what will we have? We will have the postmaster up at Orillia promoted to the postmastership at London, and the postmaster at London promoted to the postmastership at Toronto; and the same thing will happen with the customs office. Now, what is the press of Toronto going to say when the postmaster of London is promoted to the postmastership of Toronto? Is it going to be received by the press generally? Or are you going to have a question raised, with the idea, "This is a pretty good thing, and why should it go to some one outside of Toronto?" That is what happens now; but after our press and our citizens are educated, as I hope they will be, into the real meaning of this phase of the reform in patronage, we shall acquiesce, and other cities and towns will acquiesce, in the idea that the government posts there are not to be the rewards of the people in that locality; that no one there is to expect that because he lives there anything in the way of public appointment is to come to him; we shall acquiesce in the idea that the public service is to be treated as the affairs of a great bank, as the affairs of a great railway corporation, and that from bottom to top men are to be rewarded or held back in proportion to their merits.
I see difficulties there. You will have the old-fashioned type of politician, whom some of you know more about than I do. I wonder if they are all dead now-nicely and snugly and comfortably dead? Because, unless they are, you are going to have the old-type politician raising all kinds of rows, all kinds of local prejudices and appeals--possibly also racial appeals. I wonder how we should stand it if a French-Canadian should happen to be appointed postmaster of Toronto? That might come, under the proper system. I mean, merit is going to tell. Anyway, I look forward to considerable difficulty in getting rid of bad traditions, which have lasted in this country now for three-quarters of a century at any rate, and in having two branches of our public service carried on with the single ideas: efficiency in office, and merit.
As I have said, there is not very much to be said about the patronage system, and I have said all I have to say about it. It is a great deal like Lord Salisbury said about the British Empire-it is a fine thing to work up a peroration on, but after all there is not much to be said about it in detail, because its truths are so obvious. Are we prepared, as a people, to stand up and support, through thick and thin, this great reform? If we are, I see better days for this country. I sat at dinner the other night with a member of the present cabinet, and he said that he believed already some millions had been saved to the country by the abolition of the patronage system. That has been the result in only a few months. Are we prepared to face and down the man who wishes to use politics for his own selfish purposes; to make sacrifices ourselves, it may be, in order that our public service may be purified and our affairs put into the hands of efficient people who will carry them on creditably?
The reform, in the long run, will inevitably redound to the benefit of the poor man, who will get a better chance in various ways. He will get a better chance because the public money is not going to be wasted, and so his taxes will be lighter. He will get a better chance because his own sons and daughters, if they have merit, will have the opportunity of getting into the public service without that pull which is so necessary at present. The system will help the average man. It is a system that is suitable to the genius of a real democracy, and if we can see it through, we are going to have the double benefit of better people administering our affairs, and of economy in our affairs, making the work of those better people more productive, so that their number will be lessened and the national resources will be safeguarded.
We are living in very grave and serious days, and what an Elizabethan writer said is true of these times especially-that the wings of man's life are plumed with the feathers of death. We are confronting deadly realities, and the first thing to do is the duty that lies at our hands; and the duty of putting public service and putting our public life on a higher plane is assuredly one of the most pressing duties of the hour. I think it was Cecil Rhodes who said that the greatest source of happiness to a man was the conscious pursuit of a great purpose. I ask my fellow-Canadians to engage in the conscious pursuit of this great purpose of making Canada a better country to live in by reforming its government and by giving to those in authority the support of our integrity and earnestness; and when we do that I think we will find that even the sacrifices of this war have not been without some great reward to our people.
The gentleman who was to have spoken here today was to have mentioned the organization in the United States for watching these questions of Civil Service Reform, and seeing that public pledges were kept, and that the law was not broken. I think that some organization of that kind is necessary, and I hope to see within a very short time some public effort to form an organization that will hold our leaders to their tasks, because they have many things to draw them from their tasks-tasks of high public service that will require the redeeming of their pledges and that will result in the greater happiness of our own people.