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Public Appointments Commission should not be scrapped, it should be set up as soon as possible, and law changed to require Cabinet to maintain Commission

Set out below is a letter to the editor by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which was published in slightly different, edited form in the July 6, 2009 issue of the Hill Times

Dear Editor:

The Public Appointments Commission should not be scrapped, it should be established, and at the time rejecting Prime Minister Harper's nominee for chair of the Commission was the right thing to do ("Federal Public Appointments Commission should be scrapped: NDP" - June 15).

When the House committee rejected Gwyn Morgan as proposed chair of the Commission in April 2006, the measures establishing the Commission in the Federal Accountability Act (FAA) would have allowed the Cabinet to set up a lapdog Commission that would have done nothing to check patronage and cronyism.

Not only had Mr. Morgan made highly questionable comments about visible minorities in Canada, he had also raised funds for Harper in the past, and so was clearly not the independent person needed to stop unjustifiable appointments by Harper.

The likely truth of the matter is that PM Harper wanted the Commission to do for his Cabinet's appointments what former Ethics Counsellor Howard Wilson had done for the ethics of the Chrétien Cabinet's actions from 1994 to 2004 -- give them the rubber-stamp of approval no matter how much they stank.

When PM Harper didn't get away with appointing his lapdog, and when the NDP then pushed for and won changes to the FAA to make the Commission more independent with a clear mandate to ensure merit-based appointments, the PM realized the gig was up and, as the Conservative Cabinet has usually done, made up reasons to blame the opposition parties for the Conservatives failure to keep their election promises.

But the opposition parties never opposed the creation of the Public Appointments Commission, they only justifiably opposed having one of Harper's supporters as its chair.

It is also very likely that Harper realized two things after winning the minority government in 2006 -- many of his party's supporters wanted a reward for their support now that the Conservatives were finally back in power after 13 years, and that a minority government Cabinet can't pass any laws it wants, but it can still change government policy by appointing people who agree with its ideology to agencies, boards, commissions and tribunals.

I could very likely prove my claims about why Harper has yet to establish the Commission even though more than 2 years and 190 days have passed since the FAA became law, however because the Conservatives also broke their 2006 election promises to strengthen the Access to Information Act, I can't get access to the documents to prove my claims.

But the public record shows clearly that the Conservatives are the only ones to blame for failing to establish the Commission they promised, and for continuing to practise dishonest, unethical, secretive and unrepresentative politics as usual by making more than 1,000 appointments since their election in 2006, many of them highly questionable, all the while making false claims trying to blame opposition parties for the Conservatives' misleading inaction.

Just as Chrétien finally made changes to make the ethics counsellor independent when he was heading out of office, watch for the Conservatives to establish the Commission when they are close to losing an election, thereby imposing a check on patronage on a future (possibly Liberal) government that they failed to impose on themselves.

Unfortunately, because the FAA only gives Cabinet the power to establish the Commission but does not require it, watch for that Liberal government to quickly scrap the Commission so that the Liberals can also continue to practise patronage and cronyism.

So if the NDP really wants to clean up Cabinet appointments instead of just complaining about them, it should introduce a private member bill to change the FAA (specifically the Salaries Act) to require Cabinet to establish the Commission, and dare the Conservatives and Liberals to vote against it (actually, the NDP should have insisted on this change back in 2006, and when it wasn't made should have introduced the bill to make the change right after the FAA was passed).

As this and so many other actions and inaction by federal politicians show clearly, Canadians deserve better.

Duff Conacher, Coordinator
Democracy Watch

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Also see Democracy Watch's December 2008 Report Card on the federal Conservatives' democratic reform record