National Column: Trudeau failing to surpass Harper’s low bar

by Chantal Hebert

A stalled appointment process, a botched attempt at installing a member of the Liberal family in a post that requires total independence from the government, a unilateral bid to change the rules of the House of Commons. If Stephen Harper, and not Justin Trudeau, were running things on Parliament Hill, he would stand accused of institutional malevolence.

Exhibit A: Almost halfway through his mandate, Trudeau has yet to fill a single parliamentary watchdog vacancy. Most of the positions of agents of Parliament are held by interim appointees or by commissioners whose terms have been extended. Some, such as the ethics and the information commissioners, are on their second or third extensions.

A full year after chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand gave his notice, the government has not yet come up with a permanent replacement. Under Harper, a prime minister whose relationship with Elections Canada was far from cordial, the transition took place over a matter of days. The job of running Canada’s ever-evolving election system had traditionally been considered a sensitive one that requires a steady hand at the helm.

Judicial appointments have been proceeding at a glacial pace. And with every passing week, more Crown corporations are operating under skeleton boards. As of next week, for instance, the CBC/Radio-Canada board will be down to half its 12-member roster, leaving it with the bare minimum required to meet a quorum. A spokesperson for Heritage Minister MÈlanie Joly told Le Devoir last week that a selection process would “soon” be in place.

Connect all these dots and the result is an across-the-board weakening of federal and parliamentary oversight functions. By necessity, day-to-day management is becoming a substitute for strategic planning.

Exhibit B: Trudeau justifies the unprecedented delays in the appointment chain by the quest for a merit-based system.

But, if the prime minister thought the Harper-appointed agents of Parliament, whose terms he has extended, were chosen on a basis other than competence, would he not have been in a hurry to replace them?

Trudeau’s own first (failed) attempt at appointing a parliamentary watchdog – the nomination of former Ontario Liberal minister Madeleine Meilleur for official languages commissioner – did not pass the non-partisan smell test.

Had Harper proposed a recently retired Tory minister, provincial or federal, for the position, the Liberals in opposition would have been the first to accuse the Conservatives of sabotaging Canada’s official languages infrastructure.

Exhibit C: Speaking of parliamentary watchdogs, the information commissioner released her annual report earlier this month. Suzanne Legault found that, notwithstanding Trudeau’s promise of greater transparency, this had actually declined since the Liberals came to power.

Among others, she gave the RCMP, Revenue Canada and Global Affairs Canada an ëF’ for their performance and put a red alert on the departments of National Defence and Health.

Given that Harper was rightly depicted as having set the bar low on transparency, one might have expected the Liberals would find it easy to do better.

Exhibit D: Trudeau promised to be more collegial in his dealing with the opposition parties. Yet no recent government has spent as much energy trying to unilaterally change the rules of the Commons. Based on a governing majority acquired with a minority of votes, the prime minister would dictate the terms of engagement under which he and the opposition parties are to interact.

Liberal insiders argue that the fundamental difference between Harper and Trudeau’s approaches is that the latter’s heart is in the right place.

From their perspective, the big leap forward on gender parity and diversity that they hope to showcase in the next election will make all the waiting for federal appointments worth the while.

Meilleur may not have passed the smell test but, surely, they say, no one would doubt that a prime minister whose last name is Trudeau wishes Canada’s official languages system well?

And don’t the Liberals, they ask, have a mandate to implement unilaterally, if need be, changes to the House of Commons rules they campaigned on in the last election?

On the way to power, every prime minister in recent decades has promised to run a more transparent, more collegial government than its predecessor.

All of them subsequently moved the line in the other direction.

One can only hope the Liberals will remember their self-serving rationale when their party is sitting in opposition, across from a prime minister who sets out to build on some of Trudeau’s damaging precedents.

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

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