We once had to wait weeks for a new Harper abuse of power. Now we’re getting them two or three a day

Posted on in Governance Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
June 6, 2014.   Andrew Coyne

Time was when we had to wait weeks, even months for each new abuse of power by the Harper government. Now they arrive by the day, sometimes two and three at a time. Of late we’ve been treated to:

– The prostitution bill. The Supreme Court having tossed out the old laws as a violation of prostitutes’ constitutional right not to be beaten or murdered (I paraphrase), it was expected the government would opt for the “Nordic model,” criminalizing the purchase of sex rather than the sale, as a replacement — a contentious but tenable response to the Court’s decision. It was not expected it would, in effect, fling the ruling back in the Court’s face. Not content with leaving the impugned provisions, but for a few cosmetic changes, essentially intact, the government imposed new restrictions, for example banning prostitutes from advertising: not just in violation of the Constitution, it would seem, but in defiance of it. The bill is written as if calculated to provoke another confrontation with the Court, ideally in time for the next election.

– The cyberbullying bill. At least, that’s what it was sold as: legislation making it a crime to post revealing images of someone online without their consent, for which the government deserves praise. But nothing comes free with this gang. Tacked onto the bill is a number of other unrelated measures — among others, one that would make it easier for police and other authorities to obtain customers’ personal data from Internet and telephone providers, without a warrant — easier that is, than it already is, which is plenty.

– The new privacy commissioner. Of all the people the government might have picked to replace the outgoing commissioner, it chose a top lawyer in the Department of Justice, known for his work on security and public safety issues: exactly the sort of person the privacy commissioner is supposed to keep tabs on. Worse, of six people on the selection committee’s short-list, Daniel Therrien placed sixth. The committee might as well not have bothered.

– The F-35 contract. In the wake of the auditor general’s findings that it had deliberately understated the true costs of the sole-source purchase of 65 “next generation” fighter jets — initially presented as costing just $9-billion, the correct figure, operating costs included, is now estimated at $45-billion — and in the face of growing doubts about the mission, specifications and performance of the plane, the government agreed to review the purchase, perhaps even open it up to competitive bidding. It is now reported, 18 months later, that the review will recommend buying the same plane, on the same terms — without competition.

And those are just the highlights. In the past week we’ve also learned that the government is monitoring “all known demonstrations” in the country, with all departments directed to send reports to a central registry; that the information commissioner has reported a one-third increase in complaints the government is blocking or delaying access to information requests; that a Liberal MP was secretly taped, allegedly by an intern in the Minister of Justice’s office, making embarrassing remarks about his leader.

Several themes run throughout these: a contempt for civil liberties, for due process, for established convention, for consultation, for openness, replaced throughout by a culture of secrecy, control, expedience and partisan advantage. Worse, there is virtually nothing anyone can do about it. All governments have displayed some of these traits. If this government has pushed things rather further, it is because it can: because we have so centralized power in the Prime Minister’s Office, with so few constraints or countervailing powers.

Where this has lately come to a head is in the appointments process. For in Canada, uniquely, the prime minister’s powers of appointments extend not only to all who serve beneath him, but to every one of the offices that might be expected to hold him in check. He appoints the Governor General, all the senators, and every member of the Supreme Court; the governor of the Bank of Canada, all the deputy ministers, and every Crown corporation president; the top military officers, the heads of the security services, and the commissioner of the RCMP; plus all of the officers of Parliament I’ve mentioned and several more besides. And those are in addition to the already vast powers of appointment with which he rules over members of Parliament: not only cabinet, but all the parliamentary secretaries and all the committee chairs as well.

For in Canada, uniquely, the prime minister’s powers of appointments extend not only to all who serve beneath him, but to every one of the offices that might be expected to hold him in check

This would be worrisome enough even if the process were immaculate and the quality of appointments uniformly high. But what we’ve been seeing lately is a series of puzzling, troublesome and downright incompetent appointments: the parade of senators now in various stages of trouble with the law; the ill-starred promotion of Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court (his successor, Clement Gascon, was better received, but without even the pretense of parliamentary scrutiny that attended Nadon); the conversion of what had been an arm’s-length process for choosing the Bank of Canada governor into the personal pick of the Finance minister; the selection of Arthur Porter — Arthur Porter — to chair the Security Intelligence Review Committee. The Therrien appointment seems almost benign in comparison.

It is a kind of tribute to the prime minister that so many of his appointees have proved so disruptive of his designs: the Senators who have defied the whip, the Supreme Court judges who have ruled against his legislation; the auditor general and the parliamentary budget officer and the chief electoral officer, whom his people have done their best to smear and demean. But it remains the case that, in this as in other areas, we have vested far too much power in one man, with results we can now plainly see.

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