Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s nomination of Daniel Therrien as the next privacy commissioner of Canada carries unsettling echoes of other appointments by the Conservative government.
On the one hand, Mr. Therrien has great depth of experience in the federal government. On the other, he does not appear to be an expert in the protection of privacy. He does, however, have quite a lot of experience with some of the most controversial issues of privacy and information, having been a senior civil servant dealing with the departments of Defence, Public Safety, Immigration and Justice. He negotiated the sharing of information on citizens as part of the security-perimeter agreement with the United States, known as the Beyond the Border Accord. He evidently knows a great deal about security and intelligence, including the government’s practices on electronic surveillance. He was, in other words, deeply involved in creating policies and practices that many privacy advocates criticize – and which, as privacy commissioner, he will be in charge of passing judgment on. It leaves a real apprehension of conflict of interest and bias.
The selection committee for this position considered and interviewed six candidates, and recommended Lisa Campbell, a senior executive committee at the Competition Bureau – an agency with watchdog functions similar to those of the privacy commissioner. Mr. Harper reportedly asked for another candidate. Accordingly, Tony Clement, the President of the Treasury Board, interviewed Mr. Therrien, who was then appointed less than two months later.
More broadly, this government has tended not to be co-operative with watchdogs, even those it appointed itself, such as former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page.
This process is reminiscent of the ill-fated nomination to the Supreme Court of Marc Nadon, where the set of names chosen seems to have been skewed to give Justice Nadon the preference because of his small-c conservatism.
The interim privacy commissioner, Chantal Bernier, was passed over, as was a provincial privacy commissioner, apparently Elizabeth Denham of B.C. They have both done good work in the area. The parliamentary scrutiny of Mr. Therrien’s appointment on Tuesday will be all too brief – an hour with the Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates says that the best guard is also the best burglar. The best watchdog is one who knows the ways of those he is charged with watching. If Canada is fortunate, Mr. Therrien will be all the more vigilant about privacy because he so well understands the workings of state surveillance and information-gathering. It’s possible. But it’s not wise to bet on it.