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Ex-languages commissioner Fraser says Liberals waited a year to begin search for his replacement

By Marco Vigliotti      

The initial notice about the opening for Graham Fraser's job was posted on Nov. 2, 2016, says the PCO, after his term was originally supposed to end. The application deadline was pushed back to January, a year after Fraser says he flagged the opening.

Former languages commissioner Graham Fraser suggested that the government was slow to begin the process to find a replacement for him, saying it was his 'understanding' the search for a full-time replacement didn't begin 'in earnest' until 2017. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Graham Fraser says the Liberal government waited until 2017, after he’d already left his extended term as languages commissioner, to really begin the search to replace him, despite being reminded of the impending vacancy a year before, raising renewed concerns about the sluggish pace of governor-in-council appointments under the Liberals.

Mr. Fraser, who left the post in December 2016, said he wrote to the clerk of the House in January of that year to notify that his mandate was expiring in October and give the government a leg up in finding a replacement.

But no successor was chosen in time and Mr. Fraser had his tenure extended an additional two months before he eventually left office. He was replaced on an interim basis by assistant commissioner Ghislaine Saikaley.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) finally announced in May that former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Madeleine Meilleur had been nominated to succeed Mr. Fraser, however she withdrew as a candidate last week after her appointment drew the ire of the opposition parties, who accused the Liberals of politicizing the post by appointing a well-known partisan.

When reached by The Hill Times, Mr. Fraser suggested that the government was slow to begin the process to find a new commissioner, saying it was his “understanding” the search for a full-time replacement didn’t begin “in earnest” until 2017.

“My observation about the delay concerns the fact that the government was slow to launch the process,” he said via email.

Paul Duchesne, a spokesperson for the Privy Council Office, which manages the appointments process for senior positions in federal departments, Crown corporations, and agencies, said the initial notice about the opening for the commissioner’s position was posted on Nov. 2, 2016, with a deadline of Dec. 2, 2016.

The deadline, however, was pushed back to Jan. 9, 2017 to allow “more Canadians to apply,” he said.

NDP MP and party ethics critic Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.) called the entire ordeal involving the languages commissioner post a “manufactured crisis,” saying it was unthinkable that given a year’s notice, the government still couldn’t line up a replacement for Mr. Fraser.

“In any workplace if you gave your boss a year’s notice and they still hadn’t posted your job a year later, it’s incompetence at this point,” he told The Hill Times.

Shortly after assuming office, Mr. Trudeau introduced an overhauled appointment scheme that he said would ensure nominations were based on merit and made following an open and transparent selection process.

The new process applies to the majority of non-judicial appointments and made hundreds of part-time positions subject to a formal selection process for the first time, according to the prime minister’s office. The posts range from parliamentary officers to positions on commissions, boards, Crown corporations, agencies, and tribunals.

Andrée-Lyne Hallé, a press secretary for the prime minister’s office, said the goal of the new process is to identify “high-quality candidates” who will “help to achieve gender parity and truly reflect Canada’s diversity.”

So far, she said there have been 170 appointments made under the new system, nearly 70 per cent of which have been women. More than 12 per cent were visible minorities, while more than 10 per cent were indigenous, according to Ms. Hallé.

Mr. Duchesne said there are more than 120 selection processes underway to fill appointments under the purview of the PCO.

Since the new process launched last year, he said the government has received more than 14,000 applications, suggesting “significant interest” in the reformed appointment set-up.  

Most glaringly, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd recently had their terms extended for another six months, the third such extension since the expiration of their original tenures, reported the Canadian Press.

Ms. Dawson and Ms. Shepherd have both announced they will step down at the end of their respective terms.

Since assuming office, Mr. Trudeau has been provided the opportunity to choose replacements for five of the eight officers of Parliament, though has yet to fill any of those vacancies.

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault was due to step aside at the end of the month but has had her term extended to the end of the year.

Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand retired in December. The appointment of the chief electoral officer is made through a resolution by the House.

PMO appointments director left in February, replacement came last month

Amid the backlog, the prime minister’s office lost its appointments director when Mary Ng (Markham-Thornhill, Ont.) took a leave of absence in February to successfully seek the Liberal Party nomination for a Toronto-area seat left vacant by John McCallum’s resignation to become the new ambassador to China. She handily won the byelection for the riding in April.

Hilary Leftick succeeded her as appointments director, starting work in the role early last month, according to Ms. Hallé.

Ms. Ng did not return calls seeking comment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is feeling pressure from critics to improve the overhauled appointments process he introduced last year, as delays in finding new candidates have seen his government fail to successfully replace any of the five officers of Parliament who have left or announced they’re leaving since he took office. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Penny Collenette, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s law school and former appointments director under Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien from 1993 to 1997, said that while she understands the reformed appointment system and push for greater diversity would require more time, there is no excuse for continued delays after nearly two years of Liberal rule.

“It’s always a good idea to open it up and get people from different sectors and communities. It’s just if that’s the problem, then we’ve got a second problem, a second challenge with the efficiency,” she said.

“We are now into nearly two years to this government, it seems odd to me that there is this recurring problem.”

She warned that delays in rendering new appointments could cause another recruitment crunch in the coming years because the government wouldn’t have time to conduct proper succession planning to replace retiring appointees and allow for generational change in these senior positions.

Under her watch, Ms. Collenette said appointments were far more efficient with prospective candidates approved or rejected “very quickly,” even though the Chrétien government opened up the appointment process by publicly advertising for positions for the first time, in the wake of high-profile scandals over patronage appointments made by prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Mr. Fraser also said his experience applying for the languages commissioner position 11 years ago under the former Conservative government was “quite different” than what is unfolding under the Liberals.

The opening for the position, he said, was posted on June 23, 2006, with a two-week deadline given for applications. It was the first time the position was publicly advertised.

Mr. Fraser said he was interviewed for the job on the week after Labour Day, and his nomination was announced shortly after on Sept. 13. His mandate began on Oct. 17, 2006.

He said his only interview for the job was with then-prime minister Stephen Harper.

“It has become a much more elaborate, formal process since then,” he said, acknowledging that the prospective pool of candidates with the expertise and experience necessary to fulfill any of the eight parliamentary officers posts will be fairly small.

In hopes of improving the appointments process, the NDP announced Monday that it would put forward a motion this week to amend the standing orders to mandate co-operation with opposition parties on appointing officers of Parliament.

Under the plan, the government would be required to put forward a proposed nominee to a new appointments committee made up of one member of each recognized party. The committee would then have 30 days to consider supporting or rejecting the nominee. Only a majority, not a consensus, would be required to win support.

If rejected, the nomination would be withdrawn. If supported, the nomination would be put to a vote in the House.

Currently, the prime minister is required to consult with the other party leaders in the House on the appointment of parliamentary officers, but the NDP and Conservatives say the only consultation they had with the Liberals on the appointment of Ms. Meilleur was a letter announcing her pending nomination.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) also recently penned a joint letter to the prime minister asking for improved consultation on appointments.

Asked about the reasons for the delays, Mr. Duchesne said the selection and appointment processes vary depending on the position, available candidates, and “particular assessment tools” being used to evaluate applicants. 

He added that the government’s “more rigorous” approach to conducting selection processes represents a “significant volume of work.”

However, Ms. Collenette warned lingering difficulties in filling vacancies could slow government operations by delaying important decisions.

“Appointments are not just for show and they’re not just plums. They are the actual work of government. And without efficiency in the process, you can have quorum problems on boards, you can have decisions that are not being made, and it holds up the process of government,” she added.

“It is important. It’s actually the machinery of government. So it’s an issue for them.”

mvigliotti@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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