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Trudeau Liberals’ predictable appointments scandal could have been prevented

The following op-ed by Democracy Watch Co-founder Duff Conacher was published by Troy Media (and 9 other media outlets) on February 21, 2021, and by the Hill Times on February 25, 2021, and in the Hamilton Spectator on March 4, 2021.

Throughout 2016, after they were first elected, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers claimed again and again that they were making significant changes to the Cabinet appointment system to ensure it was “transparent, open and merit-based.” Very unfortunately, literally every media outlet believed and reported the claims without checking whether they were true.

At the beginning of 2017, the Liberals issued an announcement saying the changes had been made, and media across Canada echoed the claim, again without any verification.

For a couple of years afterwards, as is often the case, the media was reluctant to cover evidence of its own negligence. What the Trudeau Liberals had claimed must be true because the media had reported it as being true.

However, the evidence was mounting that the Liberals were blowing smoke. First, incredibly, former Ontario Liberal MPP Madeleine Meilleur admitted in spring 2017 before a House Committee that when she was considering ending her political career she had talked with Trudeau’s then-senior adviser Gerald Butts, and also his Chief of Staff Katie Telford, and asked to be appointed as federal Commissioner of Official Languages.

Her statement became so politically costly to the Trudeau Cabinet that she ended up withdrawing her candidacy.

Then, in June 2017, the Liberals made the very questionable claim that they couldn’t find replacements for then-Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and then-Commissioner of Lobbying Karen Shepherd, and so they had to re-appoint them for a third temporary six-month term. The opposition leaders pushed Trudeau to consult with them on appointments of these and other key watchdogs, and have a House committee review a short list of candidates for each position, as a committee does for such appointments in B.C.

However, the Liberals refused to give up control of the levers of patronage, even for those two government watchdogs whose offices were both investigating Trudeau and some of his Cabinet ministers for wrongdoing. In late November 2017, the Liberals suddenly announced they had finally found new commissioners. They claimed the best people they could find in Canada for Ethics Commissioner were Mario Dion, and for Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger.

It was truly unbelievable. Dion had a record of eight unethical actions in his former job as federal Integrity Commissioner. Just after he started that job, he illegally tipped off his friend, then-Clerk of the Privy Council (PCO) Wayne Wouters, that a whistleblower had filed a complaint about his office. He refused to re-examine fully more than 220 past whistleblower complaints that had been buried by the former commissioner, and he went on to be found guilty twice of violating whistleblowers’ rights, and of gross mismanagement in two other situations.

Meanwhile, Bélanger hadn’t even applied for the job – she had instead applied to be Information Commissioner where she was already general counsel. She has gone on to increase secrecy in her office’s operations, let two big business directors off the hook who held fundraising events Trudeau attended that raised tens of thousands dollars for the Liberals, while their companies were lobbying Trudeau and other Liberals, and made many other bad decisions.

Access to information requests have revealed that the Liberals lied to opposition parties as they had found other qualified candidates for both commissioner positions by spring 2017. However, three years later the Information Commissioner’s office continues to investigate why the PCO is hiding details about how Commissioner Bélanger was handpicked by Trudeau.

Through 2017-2018, the Trudeau Liberals chose a new Information Commissioner, Privacy Commissioner, Parliamentary Budget Officer, Auditor General, Chief Electoral Officer and Governor General, all key guardians of our democracy, using similar secretive, dishonest, unethical, Cabinet-controlled processes.

And, in the past year, a whistleblower has disclosed internal government emails that show the Trudeau Liberals even check not only with Cabinet ministers and MPs, but also party members, before making decisions about whom to appoint as judges. It’s another politicized process that raises questions about the impartiality of the judges they have appointed (past governments likely did the same, but evidence proving that has never been disclosed).

Most recently, after the Governor General scandal broke wide open and Julie Payette resigned, Trudeau again claimed that his appointment process was open, transparent and merit-based. However, like so many of Trudeau’s answers to questions about his own wrongdoing, his claim was a sad joke.

His own minister, and friend, Dominic LeBlanc (whose sister-in-law is head of investigations for Ethics Commissioner Dion), had just before admitted that the vetting had not been strong enough. And then “sources” told reporters (finally) that the Cabinet had not even checked Payette’s record with organizations she had worked with in the past.

What are the lessons from Trudeau’s ongoing scandalous record of appointments? First, as the media should know after decades of covering misleading politicians, don’t report any politician’s claims without checking them first, even during their so-called “honeymoon” first year after they are elected. Only about 20 percent of voters keep up with news, and only 10 percent of those people read beyond the headlines, so if your media outlet’s headline unquestioningly reports a politician’s claim, you are helping mislead voters.

If the media had questioned the Trudeau Cabinet’s appointment process claims and reported how false they were, very likely the Cabinet would have been forced to establish an actually open and merit-based process.

Secondly, the media should regularly cover the secrecy concerning any claim made by any politician. The secrecy is the story, and if the media doesn’t cover it, they are helping with the cover-up.

Finally, no one involved in law enforcement or watching over politicians, lobbyists or government institutions can be appointed can be appointed by the ruling party Cabinet alone, especially watchdogs who enforce laws that apply to Cabinet. Cabinet ministers are biased, as the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in January 2020, and when they control such appointments it dangerously undermines our democracy and fair law enforcement.

Fully independent commissions need to be established across Canada to do public, merit-based searches for a short list of qualified candidates for all of these positions, and then a multi-party committee should be required to choose from that short list.

Duff Conacher is co-founder of Democracy Watch, and a Ph.D. student in law at the University of Ottawa

Democracy Watch’s Stop Bad Government Appointments Campaign, and Government Ethics Campaign