PM shouldn’t pick watchdogs

Toronto Star - - WORLD -

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.

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