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Ken Boessenkool: Johnston is the wrong man for the job
The former Governor General is too independent for what ought to be a partisan appointment.
By: Ken Boessenkool
The appointment of David Johnston as Special Rapporteur to investigate allegations of Chinese interference into our electoral processes has been the subject of significant criticism. Much of it centres around a perceived conflict of interest due to his past personal relationship to the Prime Minister and other things Liberal.
And that is this: The job David Johnston is being asked to do is a partisan job.
Here’s the Special Rapporteur’s mandate:
Mr. Johnston will have a wide mandate to look into foreign interference in the last two federal general elections and make expert recommendations on how to further protect our democracy and uphold Canadians’ confidence in it. The Government of Canada will comply with and implement his public recommendations, which could include a formal inquiry, a judicial review, or another independent review process.
The first half is entirely open ended and reads to me like a mandate letter to a minister should read. None of that requires the independence of a non-partisan. In fact, in my view, it requires the dependence of a partisan. These are precisely the things we elect our MPs to do. And whether or not to call a “formal inquiry a judicial review or another independent review process,” is something our Prime Minister, who also leads a political party, should decide, even if the eventual process is ultimately led by an independent non-partisan (which I’m not even sure I would insist upon).
I may be in an increasingly small group of people who sees partisanship as a fundamentally important and good thing. A key problem with our politics today is not too much partisanship, but rather too little. I believe our political parties are too weak, not too strong.
Three examples, the first of which also involves David Johnston. When he was asked to chair the Election Debates Commission, he was given a partisan role, or perhaps more accurately, he was given a role that should be left to partisans. Organizing election debates are too important a thing to take out of the hands of political parties. No “independent” person can better balance the interests of parties quite like an actual negotiation between those parties. No one but those political parties, should bear the responsibility for how election debates are organized — particularly as our elections occasionally turn on how those debates go. I would go so far as to say that if political party A convinces rival parties to accept a debate format that is in the interest of political party A, that is one indication of that party’s fitness for office.
Secondly, the increasing number of “independent” officers of parliament — particularly the rapidly expanding budgets for Auditor Generals, and the creation of Parliamentary Budget Officers (PBOs) — outsources critical roles of our elected officials.
A quick personal detour to make my point: When I first moved to Ottawa in 1994 to became Preston Manning’s economic and fiscal policy advisor, I did much of the work that the PBO does today — I wrote economic and policy reports and a shadow 1995 budget — and had a lot of cooperation from the Department of Finance to do so. That work has all shifted from partisan offices to the PBO and the Auditor General, to the detriment of the quality of our Opposition. All of that work, and those budgets, should be given back to elected partisans in our legislative bodies.
Third, the Senate, on which I have written extensively elsewhere. We increasingly have a “meritorious” senate entirely untethered to partisanship. And that’s a bad thing when you consider that these meritorious senators lack any sort of democratic mandate or partisan affiliation that would otherwise discipline their actions. Once the prime minister that appointed them is gone, to whom do they owe loyalty beyond themselves? Why would they have any incentive to be humble in their legislative aspirations? Other than proactively spend money (though they do have the power “to reduce the amounts” in budget supply bills and can hence could theoretically block a budget), they have absolute legislative power. Do we want folks with such power to lack any democratic legitimacy?
Partisan senators have two democratic links. First, they have a linkage to the government that appointed them. And they remain tethered to that party by sitting in their caucus. That party will presumably continue to have a realistic opportunity to win another democratic mandate. Although meritorious senators arguably have some linkage to the government that appointed them, the fact that they are untethered to a political party means that linkage is immediately, and permanently, broken. Once appointed, we strip away any vestige of democratic legitimacy from merit-based non-partisan senators.
There are a myriad of legitimately independent roles in our governments. The bureaucracy itself is massive, there are numerous boards, commissions and other bodies that are properly independent of partisan politics.
We do not lack strong, sensible and sane independent voices within our governments. Our Electoral Commission, the Bank of Canada and our Supreme Court should be free from partisan taint. Those who hold those roles should then probably avoid partisan work.
What we increasingly lack is strong, sensible and sane partisan voices. And we make this worse every time we take a role that is properly the domain of partisan politics and make it independent or give the role to someone who’s primary qualification is that they are not partisan.
David Johnston should not have refused to become a Special Rapporteur because of conflict or his past ties to Liberals. He should have refused the job because it is a partisan job. Creeping independence of so much of what was formerly partisan is making our politics weaker and our politicians dumber. That is the fundamental problem with this appointment.
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