National Column: 18 months on, and still no watchdogs

by Chantal Hebert

Almost 18 months into a majority mandate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to appoint a single parliamentary watchdog.

That is not for lack of a vacancy to fill. Four of the eight strategic positions of officers of Parliament are currently without a permanent holder.

Never in recent memory has a party in power taken so long to replace so many watchdogs. In each and every case, the Liberals were given plenty of time to find a replacement.

Canada’s chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, served notice last June of his intention to leave his post at the end of the year.

Back then, the government was in the process of rewriting Canada’s election law. It was professing to be committed to bringing in a new voting system in time for the 2019 general election.

Byelections loomed on the 2017 horizon. It was shaping up to be a busy time.

In the past, the time between the departure of the person in charge of Canada’s electoral system and a successor was counted in days.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley left office on Feb. 17, 2007, and Mayrand was confirmed four days later. The previous transition – under Brian Mulroney – also took place over less than a week.

Elections Canada is now entering its third month without a permanent leader at the helm. As an aside, anyone reading the tea leaves on Trudeau’s commitment to changing the voting system might have found an omen of the reversal to come in the remarkable lack of urgency that attended the search for Mayrand’s successor. At one point last summer, Kingsley actually volunteered to pitch in for a while.

Since the January cabinet shuffle, the agency reports to a new minister. The combination of a cabinet rookie and a caretaker CEO is not necessarily a winning one for whatever is left of the Liberal electoral reform agenda.

The term of the official languages commissioner is a fixed one. When Trudeau was sworn in late in 2015, the deadline for replacing Graham Fraser as the parliamentary watchdog in charge of ensuring that the government lives up to its language obligations was already set for the end of the following summer.

The government initially extended Fraser’s term until the end of 2016.

He has since handed the reins to an interim replacement. It is on that temporary watch that an investigation into the prime minister’s refusal to answer a question in English at a town hall held in Quebec has been opened.

The conflict of interest and ethics commissioner is in charge of helping MPs – including Trudeau and his ministers – steer clear of conflicts of interest. Mary Dawson was scheduled to relinquish that role in the new year. Her term has now been extended until the summer.

She is investigating whether the prime minister broke the rules when he travelled to and holidayed on the
Aga Khan’s private Caribbean island. To put to rest questions as to her impartiality in the matter, Dawson had to make it clear she was not seeking to serve another term.

Another ethics-related post also remains vacant. Outgoing lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd is on her second six-month extension.

The watchdogs are independent of the government. They report to Parliament. They hold key roles in the federal accountability system. No interim appointee can boast the influence and the leeway of a permanent one.

Over his decade in power, Stephen Harper was often accused of lacking proper respect for the institution of
Parliament. But in contrast with Trudeau, he filled watchdog positions in a timely manner.

Government insiders argue that the delays are caused by the Liberal determination to put in place a more transparent appointment process for public office holders. But after almost 18 months that excuse is wearing thin.

The list of those qualified to fill the vacant federal watchdog positions is ultimately not a very long one, especially when one considers that the appointees must be fluent in French and English.

There is a person in the PMO whose task it is to keep the trains running on time when it comes to government appointments. Until she left on a leave of absence a few weeks ago, Mary Ng was that person. On the weekend, she won the Liberal nomination for the April 3 Markham-Thornhill byelection.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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