How to begin? Let’s use boldface.
“By establishing the Public Appointments Commission, the Government is implementing a key component of its overall plan to strengthen accountability in government as outlined in the Federal Accountability Act,” Stephen Harper said in a 2006 news release. “The Commission will provide the necessary oversight to ensure that the selection of individuals is based on merit and is done in an open and transparent way.”
The Prime Minister’s nominee to run the appointments commission was Gwyn Morgan, who had just stepped down as chairman of Encana. Setting up this commission was a big deal. Naming Morgan was a big deal. But it ended very badly indeed when Peggy Nash, an NDP member on the committee charged with approving the nomination, led the opposition in rejecting it over statements Morgan had made about immigration.
Harper scrapped the whole notion of a commission. But not forever.
“So what that tells (us) is we won’t be able to clean up the process in this minority Parliament. We’ll obviously need a majority government to do that in the future. That’s obviously what we’ll be taking to the people of Canada at the appropriate time.”
Gwyn Morgan, whose record of business achievement truly is formidable, was not happy. He gave an interview to a frequent contributor to this magazine, Linda Frum, not yet a Senator. Just think what was lost!, he said.
The commission would have the right to audit and look through all of the records. And then, the real teeth of this thing, where people start to shake in their boots, is that we would have reported annually to the Prime Minister, and tabled in the House, the appointments we felt didn’t meet the code. And that was the reason we had power.
Linda Frum, concerned for “a country that craves a higher calibre political class,” asked Morgan whether he would take the appointment in the future — you know, when the Conservatives had a majority and the Prime Minister kept his word. Morgan wasn’t sure. Life can change. He might not be the right person in the future. But maybe. “Obviously I believe strongly in what this was all about.”
And there things stood, until something odd happened in January of this year. Greg Weston, the veteran reporter now at the CBC, started running stories about the office Gwyn Morgan would have run. It seems nobody ever shut it down, and it was spending $1 million a year to prepare for a job it had never been asked to do.
Fast forward to yesterday’s budget.
The Government is eliminating the Public Appointments Commission Secretariat as the Government has significantly strengthened the rigour and accessibility of the public appointments system over the past five years. Improvements put in place to strengthen the public appointments system include advertising public appointment opportunities on a dedicated website and conducting open selection processes for leadership and full-time positions.
So what Harper was obviously going to take to the people of Canada is obviously not what he took to the people of Canada. And it’s true that there are ads on a website now. But that wasn’t the power Morgan believed strongly in. The power Morgan believed strongly in was the power to report publicly on whether the appointments met proper criteria. It was a power analogous in public appointments to the power the Parliamentary Budget Officer exercises in public finances, to the government’s eternal chagrin, and the power the National Round Table on Energy and the Environment exercised on those issues until the government abolished that body in the budget too. The power Morgan believed strongly in, never exercised, is now abolished.
Is anything lost in this? Maybe a little light. Would the commission have oversight over appointments to the Immigration and Refugee Board? Would it have spotted the unilingual anglophone in Montreal whose academic writings, handily collated on the Fraser Institute website, would provide hours of fun reading?
Hard to say. The point is moot now, isn’t it.
One more thing. It’s hard to write a day-2 budget story. The energy goes into the day of release; the world has moved on by the weekend. Stories that don’t make it into the five-point summaries on the first day sometimes vanish without a trace. I’ll be lingering over various aspects of this budget, not all of them embarrassing to the government, for a while, to see what else we can find.