Political patronage is the dispensation of favours or rewards such as public office, jobs, contracts, subsidies, prestige or other valued benefits by a patron (who controls their dispensation) to a client. In return, the client supplies the patron with some valued service, such as voting for the patron's party or providing money or labour for electoral campaigning. The relationship between patron and client is typically unequal, selective and discretionary; the patron does not generally grant favours to all potential clients but picks and chooses among them.

The client may be in direct contact with a patron who controls the allocation of rewards, eg, a minister may reward election organizers by appointing them to his or her office staff, but clients and patrons may also be linked by a go-between or broker. The broker may be an elected member or an election organizer who needs to approach a minister or the prime minister to obtain a favour for a client. Whether conducted face to face or through an intermediary, the patron-client relationship is one of exchange and the goods and services exchanged may be diverse. Typically, jobs or other material benefits are exchanged for political loyalty and support.

Unlike patronage, CORRUPTION is illegal conduct which gives an individual or group some private advantage which is contrary to the public interest. Corruption may become part of patronage, for example, if it is legally required that government contracts go to the lowest bidder, yet a client uses influence to win a contract even though his or her bid is higher than others. Some patronage practices are widely considered corrupt, but not by politicians and their clients. For example, the Canadian practice of awarding Senate seats to important supporters of the governing party. Some politicians argue that if all applicants for a position are equally competent it is not corrupt to choose a friend over an adversary or stranger. Celebrated controversial examples of patronage that were considered corrupt include the PACIFIC SCANDAL of the 1870s, and the Beauharnois Scandal of the 1930s. In both cases individuals linked with political parties privately benefited from major public-works projects in a manner generally considered contrary to the public interest (see also CONFLICT OF INTEREST).

Patronage is sometimes defended as a process that makes job, contract and subsidy allocation less expensive and as an antidote to the excessive bureaucratization of government. Some American observers further claim that it helps to reinforce party unity and discipline, but most Canadians oppose patronage practices that they think undermine the principles of merit and equal access for all to the benefits of the state.

Canadian parties have traditionally used patronage to build political machines to maintain their advantage over rivals. Elaborate machines were created by the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties in the 19th century, and by many provincial parties. Since the passing of the 1974 Elections Expenses Act, Parliament and several provincial legislatures have attempted to control political donations and election spending, and laws governing election practices and PARTY FINANCING have been tightened. The PUBLIC SERVICE has also become less vulnerable to patronage and corruption because the merit principle generally governs recruitment and promotion. Where civil servants are unionized, resistance to such practices is even greater.

The spread of the WELFARE STATE has increased the number of public benefits available to all, with a corresponding decrease in more personalized rewards based on individual relationships. The weakening of family ties and religious institutions has also weakened the cultural and social bases for patronage, particularly in rural areas. The increased ideological content of politics has also helped reduce patronage.

Nevertheless, patronage remains an important aspect of Canadian politics. While it has been largely eliminated at the lower levels of the political system, except in a few provinces, it still thrives at the top where the rewards are fewer but extremely valuable, such as appointments to the SENATE, to ambassadorships or to lucrative positions on various agencies, boards and commissions. These rewards are reserved mainly for an elite of party organizers, fund-raisers, pollsters and media specialists who are they key personnel in modern political parties and in the personal entourages of party leaders.