Column: Harper’s pledge of transparency slowly fading

Harper 02.JPGby Tim Harper

There was always less than met the eye in Stephen Harper’s use of a parliamentary committee to vet his Supreme Court nominees.

The MPs could not overturn the nomination, they were given precious little time to prepare for the hearing and they often veered into partisan show instead of substance.

Likely few Canadians paid much attention.

But they did provide some accountability and transparency to the process, a key commitment by the prime minister and something his party had pushed while in opposition.

The hearings have proved disposable. They are now gone. Montreal lawyer Suzanne CÙtÈ was appointed last week without a hearing, the second time in six months Harper bypassed the system he created.

If hearings were largely a facade, they were nevertheless a facade Harper embraced and his disposal of them illustrates two key points about a prime minister soon to mark nine years in office.

When things don’t go Harper’s way, his impulse is to just toss the initiative away rather than try to fix it. And it is but the latest example of Harper governing in a manner he railed against while in opposition.

Essentially the hearings are gone because of a previous leak to the Globe and Mail of names under consideration by the government in an earlier vacancy.

What made the leak particularly newsworthy was that it showed that four of the six names on the government list were ineligible to sit on the top court.

When that was pointed out by NDP justice critic FranÁoise Boivin, Justice Minister Peter MacKay shot back that the committee may have been behind the leak.

He said the process was impugned and those who may have wanted to be considered would not put their names forward for fear they would be leaked.

“What I say about the necessity of preserving the integrity of the system, it was very much a consideration … when I read in the Globe and Mail that our list that we were working from, that you and other members were a part of forming, was leaked,” he told Liberal Sean Casey, who had to remind the minister he was not even involved in the process.

Irwin Cotler, the former Liberal justice minister, says the lack of transparency and accountability in the last two appointments (including ClÈment Gascon in June) involved no transparency or accountability and represents “a serious regression to a process that is secret, unaccountable and unrepresentative.”

By cutting the parliamentary selection committee, opposition MPs no longer had a stake in the process, meaning the committee hearings could lead to embarrassing questions about Harper’s selection.

So the whole process had to go.

Ten years ago, MacKay was calling for greater transparency in the making of Supreme Court appointments, but that was MacKay in 2004.

More notably, Stephen Harper of 2014 is not the Stephen Harper of 2004. He has walked away from previous commitments to accountability when things didn’t go his way.

He fulfilled a promise to create a commission to develop guidelines and oversee major federal appointments, but when his nominee as chair, business magnate Gwyn Morgan, was rejected by a parliamentary committee, Harper shelved the commitment.

Harper was the man in opposition who condemned the Liberals for tabling omnibus bills, but in majority government he has used them more often and made them larger.

He vowed Senate reform, then stacked the Upper Chamber, setting records for patronage appointments until that all blew up.

Just last week, the one-time champion of accountability ensured Canadians would not be told the cost of our mission to degrade the Islamic State group as part of an allied air bombing effort.

Harper is hardly the first prime minister to attack while in opposition then slowly morph into the type of government he vowed had to be defeated.

The Canadian political landscape is littered with promises of change from those seeking power that are quietly allowed to drift into the mist once power is attained.

It happens over time and, in this case, the freedom of majority.

It is worth remembering when NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau tell you over the coming year that they will do things differently, because either one of them would also likely over time revert to practices they found odious while in opposition.

If he were still in opposition, it’s hard to imagine Stephen Harper would like this current government.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf

Copyright 2014
Torstar Syndication Services

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