You can’t just trade federal appointments
By Penny Collenette,
The current courthouse drama on Elgin Street over Larry O’Brien’s alleged “offer” to former mayoral candidate Terry Kilrea of a job on the National Parole Board is a good opportunity to take a reality check on federal appointments. These include every post from part-time positions on local port authorities to the governor general.
The media describe appointments as plums, not as jobs. Wages and benefits earned are known as perks, not salaries or compensation.
The reality is that many of these positions are among the toughest jobs in the country. For example, the decisions made by the National Parole Board and the Immigration and Refugee Board can have far reaching consequences for our society. There is little room for error and there is no time for “learning on the job.” Individual appointees have been known to suffer from stress due to media scrutiny.
So why don’t we take these jobs seriously? Why do some people believe that they can simply ask for a position or even worse, promise it?
In his time, Sir Wilfrid Laurier had his appointments work cut out for him: “No other subject bulked so large in correspondence; no other subject brought so many visitors to Ottawa. It meant endless bombardment of ministers, ceaseless efforts to secure a word from the friend of a friend of the premier, bitter disappointment for the ninety and nine who were turned away ...”
First, let me observe that the current system is light years away from those of yesteryear for several reasons, but no less difficult. If Sir Wilfrid were alive today, he would no doubt be bombarded, not only by letters, but by e-mails. (To my knowledge, no one has yet mounted a Facebook campaign for an appointment, but no doubt someone, somewhere is thinking of it.) But modern technology allows access to names and talent which are easily found through websites and databases. The “local” nature of appointments has evolved into a connected and networked database of talent.
Secondly, smart modern government should demand collaboration. For example, when I was responsible for considering federal appointments, I found it crucial to consult with heads of agencies, those individuals who have already received their appointment but will have responsibility to train and govern others coming on to their boards or commissions. If the president or chair of a commission has not been brought somewhat into the circle with new appointments, his or her board may have difficulty functioning efficiently. Additionally, in some sectors such as justice, various advisory committees made up of peers are established to vet names. Therefore, a modern appointment process is one of massive and varied consultation.
Third, in 1993 the Chrétien government began a sea change in the appointment process which has sustained itself. This was an evolution in culture which was not always easy to manage. Based on an initiative by Kim Campbell’s government, we began the process of advertising for most full-time positions.
To Ms. Campbell’s credit, she had made the decision not to appoint individuals during her tenure because she felt that as an unelected prime minister, she did not have the moral authority.
While I more than agreed with her decision from an ethical standpoint, when we took office in 1993 boards were often left without quorum because of a lack of members. Catching up took months. Job descriptions were drawn up and interviews established. Reference checks and security clearances often took time, especially for quasi-judicial agencies, like the Parole Board.
Lastly, the communications messaging behind the appointments system was brought into the open. No longer were appointments announced on a Friday afternoon when journalists were not looking. Timely press releases with bios attached were the order of the day. One only has to remember the national publicity when the present governor general was announced to understand the symbolic importance of communicating a government’s choice in a forthright fashion.
All this is to say that a federal appointment which is discussed, suggested or offered should never be taken lightly. No federal appointment should ever be offered as an inducement for a change in behaviour, whether it is to run for elected office or not to run for elected office.
Has the system worked? I was at the 40th anniversary of the National Arts Centre Tuesday night and looked around me at some wonderful people. Peter Herrndorf, the much loved president of the National Arts Centre, Madam Justice Beverley McLachlin, chief justice of the Supreme Court, and former senators Jean-Louis Roux and Laurier LaPierre. Order in council appointments all of them.
Could the system work better? Of course. But let’s begin with some respect for the history and the tradition.
Penny Collenette was director of appointments in the prime minister’s office from 1993-1997. She is a lawyer and is currently adjunct professor in the faculty of law and executive-in-residence at the Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa.
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