The Prime Minister’s Office acknowledges that it uses a partisan database called Liberalist to conduct background checks on prospective senators before appointing them to sit as independents.
The government came under fire after The Globe and Mail revealed last week that prospective judges were being put through the Liberal database, which states whether individuals have been members of the party, have participated in partisan activities or taken lawn signs during election periods.
The PMO initially refused to state whether Liberalist was also used for senators. On Thursday, however, the government confirmed the Liberalist database is used to conduct background checks for almost all appointments, including federal boards, tribunals and positions such as senators.
In 2016, former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould revamped the judicial appointment system, promising to increase the “openness, transparency, accountability and diversity of Canada’s judiciary.”
According to experts and critics, the use of the partisan database increases the possibility that the judicial appointment process, which the government describes as transparent and merit-based, is used to reward party supporters. In terms of senators, the use of the Liberalist database seemingly clashes with the government’s assertion that candidates are picked to be independent of the party in power.
The PMO says the checks are conducted as part of “due diligence” to identify any potential problems related to appointments, and are not designed to favour candidates who are Liberal supporters or weed out those who have not supported the party.
“Our government has appointed people that have donated or been involved with parties of all political stripes,” said PMO spokeswoman Chantal Gagnon. “It is typical for journalists and members of Parliament to publicly ask questions about political activities and affiliations of government appointees, so it is normal and appropriate to prepare for and understand what those questions may be.”
In the previous election, the Liberal Party of Canada promised to appoint senators under a “new, non-partisan, merit-based process.”
After applying for the position, candidates are evaluated by a newly created Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments, which proposes a “non-binding” short-list of five candidates to the Prime Minister for each vacancy.
The PMO subsequently conducts verifications on the short-listed candidates by running their names in a variety of public databases, such as Google News, but also uses Liberalist to obtain a clearer picture of the candidates’ history with the Liberal Party.
Unlike donations to political parties that are publicly listed on the Elections Canada website, the information in Liberalist is not available to the public at large. The database allows Liberal officials to see whether candidates have had any interactions over more than a decade with the Liberal Party, including whether they have expressed their support for the party during interactions with volunteers during election campaigns.
“Given the level of public scrutiny on public appointments, after we receive the recommendations from the independent advisory board, a due diligence of each candidate is completed and includes any media coverage and political activities based on all tools available to us,” Ms. Gagnon said.
When he appoints new senators, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emphasizes that they will be sitting as “independent senators” as part of his efforts to depoliticize the chamber of “sober, second thought.”
So far, Mr. Trudeau has appointed 49 senators, with only one current vacancy in the 105-seat chamber.
About one-third of senators appointed by Mr. Trudeau had a history of donations to the Liberal Party. A small number of others had worked or supported other political formations, including Frances Lankin, who was a minister in Ontario’s NDP government under Bob Rae.
The PMO does not make the results of its background checks available to the public.
A majority of new senators appointed by Mr. Trudeau are now members of the Independent Senators Group, which is currently made up of 58 caucus members. There are 30 Conservative senators, nine members of the Liberal caucus, which is not officially part of Mr. Trudeau’s political formation, and seven non-affiliated senators.
The Conservatives have long insisted that the senators appointed by Mr. Trudeau are largely supportive of the Liberal agenda and should not be presented as independent.
“We argue [whether] those appointed are even truly independent,” Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie said last year. “At the end of the day, it is the Prime Minister who appointed them.”