PM shouldn’t pick watchdogs
The critics calling on Justin Trudeau to recuse himself from the search for a new lobbying commissioner are right. The prime minister appears to have a conflict of interest in the matter.
But a recusal alone is not enough. Trudeau should work to preclude such conflicts in perpetuity by addressing a long-standing flaw in our system of democratic oversight: namely, that the government effectively has sole discretion to choose the watchdogs meant to hold it to account. This needs to change.
In the case of the lobbying commissioner, the conflict is clear. The watchdog is currently investigating two questionable fundraisers held for Trudeau, one by the chairman of the pharmaceutical company Apotex in 2015, the other by a co-founder of Clearwater Seafoods in 2014. Both companies are registered to lobby the prime minister. The concern, of course, is that raising money for a politician whom you might one day be in a position to lobby looks a little fishy.
The Prime Minister’s Office claims there is no conflict because Trudeau, not being a lobbyist himself, falls outside the watchdog’s jurisdiction. But clearly if the commissioner finds that the lobbyists broke the rules, it would be a bad news story for the Liberals. The optics, then, of the prime minister picking the new investigator are less than ideal.
But as we have seen in recent months, when it comes to the current process for appointing officers of Parliament, the appearance of conflict-of-interest is pretty much unavoidable.
In May, Trudeau rightly recused himself from the search for a new ethics commissioner because that office is currently investigating the prime minister’s misguided Christmas vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island. Clearly, Trudeau should not be hiring the head of an office looking into his own alleged ethical breaches.
Later that month, the government picked Madeleine Meilleur, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister, to be Canada’s new official languages commissioner. This prompted understandable denunciations from the opposition benches, whose members promised to do everything in their power to block the nomination. The selection of a former Liberal partisan by a Liberal government to act as an independent watchdog was never going to fly. Meilleur withdrew her candidacy in June.
Trudeau’s recusal in the first case and Meilleur’s withdrawal in the second were both welcome, as would be Trudeau’s recusal from the search for a new lobbying commissioner. But none of this addresses the deeper issue. What if a future prime minister, faced with similar situations, chose to behave less ethically? Surely the integrity of the process should be invulnerable to the whims of individual governments.
None of that is to suggest the government is looking to appoint uncritical cronies or that the candidates being considered would not pursue their watchdog’s work both capably and vigorously, but only that the appearance of conflict-of-interest is baked into the current system.
The Trudeau government has made much of the importance of creating more transparent, merit-based appointment processes. And in many areas, it has made progress. All positions appointed by ministers, for instance, are now posted publicly, along with objective hiring criteria. But, on parliamentary watchdogs, given the special tensions involved, the government must do more.
The current process, which includes consultations with opposition leaders and a motion in the House, offers some transparency but little constraint, especially for a majority government.
Much better would be a process like the one the Trudeau government introduced for appointing senators or Ontario has in place for picking judges. These approaches rely on independent expert panels to propose a shortlist of candidates to the cabinet, thereby taking partisanship largely out of the process while maintaining the ministers’ ultimate prerogative.
Trudeau should do the right thing and recuse himself from the search for a new lobbying commissioner. At the same time, he should promise to update the appointment process for all officers of Parliament so that, when it comes to picking watchdogs, doing the right thing won’t be a question for future prime ministers.
On parliamentary watchdogs, given the special tensions involved, the government must do more
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should do the right thing and recuse himself from the search for a new lobbying commissioner.