National Column: Nomination stokes fear of watchdogs on leashes

by Chantal Hebert

At this time last year, Madeleine Meilleur was a long-serving cabinet minister in the Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne. Over her 13 years at Queen’s Park she held a number of portfolios under two premiers. Her initial time in the legislature coincided with the Ontario tenure of both of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top aides Katie Telford and Gerald Butts.

When Meilleur left active politics last summer, she had her heart set on securing a senate appointment. That was until it was made clear that Trudeau’s more independent senate was no place for a just-retired Liberal politician.

That is how she came to set her sights on the then-soon-to-be-vacant post of commissioner of official languages. She applied for it like anyone else. Before and during her years in politics Meilleur had been a strong advocate for French-language rights. Earlier this month her name emerged as the prime minister’s choice for the post. But that is not to say that the process that led to the decision was a blind one.

Meilleur says she had chats about her application with Telford and Butts along the way. And it was Heritage Minister MÈlanie Joly – according to her spokesperson – who conducted the final interviews.

The official languages commissioner is one of eight agents of Parliament. The auditor general is another as is the chief electoral officer. They report to Parliament, not the prime minister.

The collective mission of these parliamentary officers is to act as independent watchdogs in their designated areas of expertise. The term “independent” is an operative word in their job definition or at least it was until Meilleur’s proposed nomination.

That there is less than a degree of separation between Meilleur and Trudeau’s Liberal government is not in question. That closeness is unique in the history of similar appointments.

Among the half dozen that served as official languages commissioners since the post was created in 1970, only one, Victor Goldbloom, was ever active in electoral politics. The others hailed from academia, journalism or had been career diplomats.

Goldbloom had served in the Quebec cabinet of Robert Bourassa. But the parallels with Meilleur stop there for he left the national assembly more than a decade prior to his federal appointment. In the interval, he had held a number of non-partisan positions. And while Goldbloom had been a provincial Liberal MNA, it was Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney who put his name forward.

This is Trudeau’s first proposed appointment of an agent of Parliament. There are more to come. At this juncture, more than half the positions are filled on an interim basis. In some instances, as in the case of the chief electoral officer, the length of the hiatus is unprecedented. Marc Mayrand left his post five months ago after having given six months’ notice.

The government says the quest for a more arms-length merit-based process has been slowing things down.

But there is little that is arm’s length in the process described by both Meilleur and Joly’s office. Based on their accounts, the only feature that is more transparent than ever is the wall that should stand between government officials and the selection of independent parliamentary watchdogs.

The opposition parties have not signed off on Meilleur’s nomination. They have complained to the Speaker that the prime minister ignored his legal obligation to consult them prior to making the announcement.

If and when Meilleur’s name is put to a vote in the Commons, her appointment might only carry because the Liberals hold a majority. Under that scenario, things could get difficult in the Senate. Some independent senators may balk at vetting an appointment that is devoid of consensual support in the other house. It does not help that some of the associations that toil on the front of French-language rights have expressed concerns over the integrity of the process.

This comes at a time when the Liberal government has presented legislation that could clip the wings of the parliamentary budget officer. To say that there is widespread opposition suspicion that the Liberals, like their predecessors, like watchdogs best when they are on a leash is an understatement.

In the last election campaign, Trudeau accused Stephen Harper of having turned Parliament Hill into “a partisan swamp.” He said he would clean it up. It is hard to reconcile that promise with an appointment that fails the non-partisan smell test.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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