The Trudeau government embarrassed itself last month when it named Martine Richard as interim federal ethics commissioner.
Ms. Richard wasn’t the problem. An experienced investigator in the office of the ethics commissioner, she could have filled in for Mario Dion, who stepped down for health reasons in February, while Ottawa searched for his replacement.
The problem was the government. Lousy with conflict-of-interest violations that start with the Prime Minister and trickle down through the ranks of ministers, parliamentary secretaries and backbench MPs, the Liberals somehow thought it would be a credible idea to name the sister-in-law of Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc as interim ethics commissioner.
Ms. Richard’s appointment was all the more troubling because the Liberals furtively announced it in a terse statement on the commission’s social media feed the same day that the Parliamentary press corps was knee-deep in the release of the federal budget.
Predictably, it ended badly. Ms. Richard resigned from the job last week after members of the Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics voted to call her and her brother-in-law to testify as part of an investigation into her appointment. (She remains in the commissioner’s office in her former role.)
It was not the Trudeau Liberals’ finest moment when it comes to appointing the officers of Parliament who serve as independent watchdogs of government mismanagement, conflicts of interest, lobbying violations and other misdeeds. But it wasn’t the worst either.
That honour goes to their decision in 2017 to nominate Madeleine Meilleur as official languages commissioner, only to see the former Liberal Ontario MPP withdraw her candidacy when it came to light she had discussed the position with key members of the PMO.
The opposition, as well as minority language rights groups, rightfully opposed her nomination on the grounds there was no critical distance between Ms. Meilleur and the government she would have had to pass judgment on.
There are two problems at play in all of this. One is a smug culture inside the Liberal caucus that nurtures indifference to ethical guidelines.
The other is a long-standing failure by Ottawa to bring meaningful reform to the way the nine independent Parliamentary watchdogs are appointed.
The auditor-general, the chief electoral officer, the Parliamentary budget officer and the commissioners that oversee conflicts of interest, access to information, official languages, privacy, lobbying, public-sector integrity and the RCMP are chosen in a closed-door process, with the final decision made by the very government they are supposed to monitor on the public’s behalf.
Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper promised in 2006 to create a non-partisan, independent appointments commission. It was a great idea, but he killed it when he wasn’t able to name his hand-picked choice as head of the body.
What we have instead is a process in which cabinet and privy council staff sit on committees that draw up short lists of candidates, with little or no input from the opposition. The lists are then sent to cabinet for final selection.
The opposition is not told who is on the lists, even when the government has a legal obligation to consult it on some watchdog appointments.
This secretive process does not provide any assurances that the appointments aren’t tainted by partisan interests; quite the opposite.
Only the fact that officers of Parliament are given five- to 10-year tenures, and can only be fired for cause, puts any sort of distance between the appointers and the appointees. It’s not enough.
Ottawa needs to create an independent appointments commission for the nine Parliamentary watchdog positions. No politicians or their staff should sit on it. Its role should be to create a small short list of qualified candidates that it presents to an all-party, bicameral committee, the members of which would have the final say through a public vote.
The Trudeau government has it all wrong. Canadians deserve to have full confidence that officers of Parliament are watchdogs, not lapdogs.