Review of democratic processes needed as ministerial responsibility changes: experts

One of the longest Commons committee filibusters of the past 10 years was the Liberal Party’s latest marathon attempt to prevent the prime minister’s chief of staff from testifying about foreign interference.

Throughout February and March, government members of the Proceedings and House Business Committees argued that Katie Telford should answer questions because ministers were held accountable: ministers – including the prime minister – represent their files, work personnel and departments.

“It’s basically how you hold administrators accountable,” said Lori Turnbull, dean of Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration.

Telford eventually agreed to testify sometime this week amid mounting pressure from the Conservative Party, which has the support of the NDP and Bloc Quebec.

That ended a delay that lasted about 24 hours for the Liberals over several committee meetings. It was the fourth-longest filibuster among House committees in the past decade, according to the Parliamentary Library, Committees and Legislative Service.

Both the Liberal and Conservative governments have used ministerial duties to prevent their staff from testifying before committees.

The idea is based on the concept of ministers hosting the show. But Alex Marland, a professor of political science at Memorial University in Newfoundland, said staff have been given new powers that, in some cases, can even remove ministers from what they are doing.

“The system was not designed to keep people from being elected, appointed, engaged in politics and infiltrated into government, sometimes exercising cabinet power,” said Marland, who studies political communication.

He believes that change requires a review of Canada’s democratic process.

“The public service has evolved so much and society has changed so much,” he said.

“We really need to be able to handle recommendations better to make public services and government systems as strong as possible.”

Staffers often use social media to amplify government messages, become public figures and sometimes become embroiled in political squabbles, Marland said.

“I think a lot of times they’re the ones who set the course for the government, or are perceived to be. That’s the thing about politics, and a lot of the time it’s the idea that perception is reality,” Marland said.

“If … we all think that these employees have all this power, then naturally we would expect some kind of accountability somewhere. Ministers aren’t always best suited to do that.”

It has become fairly common for government workers to testify before committees, although this is a departure from how the Westminster system of parliament usually works. Telford himself has appeared before, as has former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper and Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff.

Like Telford, staff are often invited to government caucus meetings, a practice once off limits to unelected chiefs of staff.

There is “a group of people now” taking notes, monitoring what MPs say and who disagrees with leaders, Marland said.

“There were no political operatives before. This is a perfect example of how things have changed.”

Turnbull said ministers would continue to hold positions despite misconduct, another way ministerial responsibilities had changed.

She pointed to International Trade Minister Mary Ng, who violated the federal code of ethics last year by failing to recuse herself from a decision to award her friend a government contract.

“There’s a tendency now to say ‘let’s see if we can get through this. Let’s ignore this and maybe it will go away, rather than send that signal and take the step of the minister leaving the cabinet because the minister made a mistake, ’ said Turnbull.

“If the prime minister wants the minister to remain in office, then the minister will stay.”

Turnbull said there should be a full public inquiry into the integrity and health of Canadian democracy.

“I think as time goes on, it becomes more urgent that we have a critical conversation about how democracy works or doesn’t work,” she said. “Foreign interference is only one aspect.”

Mickey Djuric, Canadian Press

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