Our Angry, Impatient Government

Harper Thumbs Up

I am sure that we all agree that, regardless of our political vision, we want government to work well. We want it to serve us well without thought of political favour. Therefore the agencies which provide such non-partisan services as maintaining health and safety standards, our right to vote, infrastructure maintenance, security, whathaveyou, should be kept arms length from parliament. Their mandates should be clear, and while it is to be expected that various department heads will be appointed by various different governments and have various different connections to those governments, as long as these individuals continue to fulfill their agencies’ mandates in a competent manner, then they should be considered as having done a good job, and be allowed to continue doing that job for the remainder of their term.

This model of government has served us well through many traditions, from Trudeau to Mulroney, Mulroney to Chretien. It is unfortunate that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet have decided to upset the apple cart.

I am concerned at recent reports that the Conservative government has decided to remove Ms. Linda Keen from her position as head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, over a contretemps with the government regarding a temporary shutdown of a nuclear reactor in Chalk River, and the resulting shortage of vital medical isotopes. Actually, most of the contretemps have come from the Conservatives, who questioned the competence of Ms. Keen, and impugned her motives by bringing up the fact that she was appointed to her position by the previous Liberal government.

Indeed, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn has been decidedly immature and arrogant in reaming out Ms. Keen for her actions.

“Serious questions have arisen about whether the commission, under your leadership, could have dealt more appropriately, with the risk management of this situation… These events cast doubt on whether you possess the fundamental good judgement required by the incumbent of the office of president of the commission.”

The decision to shut down the reactor has produced hardship. That’s not in doubt. Was there a need for an intervention to maintain the supply of these critical isotopes? Quite possibly. But does this make Ms. Keen incompetent or, worse, partisan? Not in the least. Ms. Keen’s first duty, as the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, is to ensure the safety of the reactor, according to current standards, and that is what she did. The reactor in Chalk River was not meeting current safety standards. It is currently located in an earthquake zone, and the shutdown was required to bring the reactor up to safety standards.

In other words, according to her mandate, she and her commission were doing everything that she was expected to do, in precisely the manner they were supposed to be doing it, and it is for this that Gary Lunn takes her to task. It is fundamentally wrong to deride her for doing her job. It is a dangerous precedent to impugn her objectivity and to accuse her of partisan motives. Previous governments knew better. It is a crying shame that this government does not.

Ms. Keen’s response is right on the money.

As the head of an independent quasi-judicial administrative tribunal, I was and remain deeply troubled by both the tone and content of your letter. The nature of the allegations which have been made, coupled with your threat to have me removed as President, seriously undermine the independence of the CNSC…

The Supreme Court of Canada has consistently held that the principles of fundamental justice require quasi-judicial administrative tribunals to be free from political influence or interference….

[Your actions] are examples of improper interference with both the institutional independence of the CNSC and with the administration of justice …

I would therefore ask you to carefully consider the significant chilling effect your recent actions could have on the practices and decisions of other tribunals who are responsible for important work on behalf of Canadians.

(full text). Hat tip: Dr. Dawg

And it should be noted that this is the second time that this prime minister and ministers of his government have acted improperly towards our public servants. There are the nasty accusations that were levelled against the head of Elections Canada, Marc Mayrand. Members of this parliament, including the Prime MInister and members of his cabinet, publicly derided his statement back in September that women didn’t necessarily need to remove religious head coverings when they showed up to vote. Members of this government accused Mayrand of not following the will of parliament, of adhering to laws he wished existed instead of what actually existed, when instead the reverse was true. Mayrand was only guilty of following the guidelines as set before him, and it turned out that parliamentarians pilloried him for their own mistake.

It is one thing for a government to determine the mandate of various agencies operated by the public service. Such political matters are dealt with all the time in the House of Commons, and have been for years following proper protocols and procedures. It is quite another thing to show frustration at individuals whose only crime is in following those protocols and procedures. This quickly becomes a matter of a government not content to follow its own rules, impatient to make changes, willing to bulldoze protocols and procedures in order to get what they want, when they want it.

But those rules were put in place for a reason. They are in place to ensure that all Canadians are served fairly and without bias. And a government that isn’t willing to respect its own procedures does a disservice to the people who put it in office. It undermines the consistency of government, and injects politics in areas where it should not be injected.

Once is an honest mistake. Twice is the beginnings of a disturbing pattern — one which, if it continues, renders this Prime Minister and his government unfit for office. Ms Keen and Mr Mayrand deserve apologies for how they have been publicly mistreated by this government and by this Prime Minister, and Canadians as a whole deserve better.

As an aside, I would like to point out, if partisan Conservatives really wanted to make political hay over this issue, they did not need to besmerch the good name and fine credentials of Ms. Keen. Instead, they could have asked simple questions like: why is the Chalk River reactor the one reactor in Canada responsible for producing such a high percentage of these isotopes? Why was it built in an earthquake zone, and why weren’t improved safety measures installed earlier? The answers to these questions all encompass the thirteen years the previous Liberal government was in power.

Instead, this prime minister reacted to these obstacles with what amounts to a tantrum. It is unbecoming of his position, and it is a disservice to Canadians.

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