One of the most important qualifications in adjudicating matters of any kind is impartiality.
Whether it involves a judge in a court case, a referee officiating a game, an arbitrator handling a labour mediation or a volunteer judging jams at a local fair, it’s vital that the person making the decisions is completely unbiased.
Objectivity is similarly and especially crucial in matters to do with the federal government. People chosen to serve as independent watchdogs overseeing government activities must indeed be independent. There can be no hint of partisanship that might influence, or even give the appearance of influencing, the decision-making process.
It’s with that in mind that the New Democrats proposed a change in the way independent federal watchdogs are selected. The NDP are pushing to establish a multi-party committee that would have to approve people nominated by the federal government to serve as officers of Parliament. That would apply to the roles of auditor general, chief electoral officer and commissioners of ethics, lobbying, information, privacy, official languages and public sector integrity, as well as to the parliamentary budget officer, clerk of the House of Commons and chief parliamentary librarian.
The motion comes in the wake of criticism over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s choice to fill the post as official languages commissioner.
Trudeau’s pick — fellow Liberal Madeleine Meilleur — is a former Ontario cabinet minister who in the past had donated to both the federal Liberal party and to Trudeau’s leadership campaign. Those partisan links not surprisingly raised concerns about her ability to properly hold the government to account in the role of bilingualism watchdog. Trudeau was also slammed for not consulting opposition parties about his choice, which is a legal requirement for officers of Parliament.
Meilleur defended her integrity before the Senate in early June, noting, “In my prior positions, I have always been fully impartial,” but withdrew her candidacy two days later in the face of the criticism.
Nathan Cullen, the NDP ethnics critic, calls his party’s motion an “elegant solution” that will make sure partisan choices for federal watchdog jobs aren’t repeated.
Chantal Hébert, national affairs columnist with the Toronto Star, wrote of the Meilleur controversy: “This comes at a time when the Liberal government has presented legislation that could clip the wings of the parliamentary budget officer. To say that there is widespread opposition suspicion that the Liberals like watchdogs best when they are on a leash — just as their predecessors did — is an understatement.”
Federal watchdogs, including the auditor general and parliamentary budget officer, have often made governments uncomfortable with their findings in the past. That’s their job, to hold governments accountable, and that’s the way it should be in a healthy democracy.
If watchdogs are going to become nothing more than toothless lapdogs, their role defeats the purpose, and the taxpayers’ money that goes to paying their lucrative salaries is money down the drain. What we need are watchdogs with teeth and free run to do their jobs properly.