HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF AT PRIVACY COMMISSIONER’S OFFICE The Harper administration’s selection of Daniel Therrien as Canada’s next privacy commissioner has been the subject of much understandable concern from critics and the country’s commentariat.
After all, Therrien, a former assistant deputy attorney general at the Department of Justice, will now be watchdogging government agencies he once advised and policies he helped develop.
But it’s worth remembering past appointments to that same post have stirred up comparable controversy.
For example, in 1991, then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s ex-communications director Bruce Phillips was named privacy commissioner.
The Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial boards opposed that hiring, with one of the capital city newspaper’s columnists arguing the commissioner must be a “standard-bearer not a spin doctor.”
Meanwhile, Liberal and New Democrat MPs described Phillips — who was once CTV News’s Ottawa bureau chief — as a “lap dog” and a “Tory hack,” voting against his appointment.
Nevertheless, after seven years, there was widespread opinion that Philips had done a good job — so much so that he was unanimously reappointed.
And, two years later, Phillips was described by the Globe and Mail’s Hugh Winsor as leaving his job “with stars on his epaulettes.”
His successor George Radwanski would depart under different circumstances.
Like Phillips, Radwanski was a former journalist.
But, like Phillips, he also had a partisan background, advising Liberal leaders John Turner and Jean Chretien when the Grits were in opposition.
And, like Phillips, his candidacy was questioned by the opposition and the press because of that background, with columnist Jim Travers writing that the privacy commissioner’s role should “not be diminished by real or imagined political conflicts.”
“While Radwanski, like Phillips before him, may succeed despite political ties, the government is needlessly risking the position’s most valuable asset, its credibility.”
Ultimately, it was questionable spending rather than partisanship that jeopardized that credibility, resulting in Radwanski’s resignation in 2003.
But, regardless of what Phillips and Radwanski’s records were as privacy commissioner and what Therrien’s will be — the shared controversy over their appointments demonstrates a long-ignored need to reconsider how that office is filled.
Indeed, during the flap over Phillips’s connection to Mulroney, the Globe and Mail reported Liberal senators were “considering the introduction of a bill to require consensus from all political parties when appointments are made to key parliamentary offices.”
Twenty-three years later, it’s still not too late to make that happen.
MERGER INTERRUPTUS? Last week, BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vincent Gogolek questioned whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper might merge the offices of Canada’s information and privacy commissioners — making Thierren responsible for both briefs.
But proposals for such a merger have failed in the past. In a 2005 report for then Attorney General Irwin Cotler, former Supreme Court justice Gérard La Forest summarized that history this way:
In 1985 and 1986, the idea of merging the two offices was considered by the parliamentary committee responsible for the three year statutory review of the [Privacy Act and the Access to Information Act]. The committee recommended that the offices be kept separate in order to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest in the discharge of the commissioners’ mandates.
In the 1992 budget, the Government announced an intention to merge the two offices as part of an effort to streamline government and “encourage a balancing of interests between the two objectives of privacy and access to information.”
The Government planned to use section 55 of the Privacy Act to appoint the Information Commissioner as Privacy Commissioner. Information Commissioner John Grace spoke in favour of the proposal.
The proposal was criticized, however, by a number of parties (including Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips, privacy advocates, and the Canadian Bar Association), and it was not implemented.
In the mid-1990’s, the Government considered the idea of merging the Information and Privacy Commissioners’ offices with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. This proposal too was ultimately rejected.
The Government returned to the idea of merging the Information and Privacy Commissioners’ offices in 1998, but again no action was taken.
In 2001, an ad hoc parliamentary access to information committee recommended the merger of the two offices, but the government did not respond publicly to the proposal.
Lastly, in October 2003, Information Commissioner John Reid authored a position paper advocating the merger of the two offices. The Government, however, did not move forward on this proposal.
La Forest also recommended against such a merger. So, if Harper did consider combining the information and privacy commissioners’ offices, the weight of history would be strongly against him.
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