OTTAWA - Opposition parties complaining about Conservative "sabotage" of an independent rights agency were consulted on all the government's appointees last year but failed to raise objections, ministerial documents show.
Rights and Democracy, a government-funded agency, has been in turmoil for months following a battle between factions on the board and between the board chairman and the independent agency's president.
The battle came to a public boil after president Remy Beauregard died of a heart attack following a vitriolic Jan. 7 board meeting.
Now, Liberal MP Ralph Goodale is accusing Prime Minister Stephen Harper of "sabotage" of the 20-year-old agency.
"His objective here, obviously, is to destroy this organization from within, to cause such absolute turmoil that it will simply collapse," Goodale said in an interview.
But what Liberals say is now self-evident was not so apparent to the party last year, when it failed to comment even as the government was packing the board with partisans.
Under Section 7(2) of the agency legislation, every opposition party leader represented in the Commons must be consulted prior to the appointment of board members by the government.
Liberals and New Democrats both objected last September to one proposed appointee, who subsequently was not placed on the board. But they remained silent as some others with clear Conservative ties or little pertinent international human rights experience were chosen.
After Goodale complained to The Canadian Press last week that his party had not been properly consulted under the agency rules, the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon produced correspondence showing every party leader had indeed been notified in advance of every appointment. No objections were recorded, apart from those from Goodale and NDP MP Paul Dewar last September in relation to one proposed appointee. She was not appointed.
Through a spokesman, Cannon declined to comment on the appointment process or the opposition complaints.
Goodale maintains his party can find no record of being notified of the other appointees, notwithstanding the dated government copies. One of those board spots went to Brad Farquhar - who ran for the Tories against Goodale in his Saskatchewan riding in 2006.
"Obviously if that name had come to my attention, alarm bells would have gone off," said Goodale.
Dewar in an interview acknowledged NDP Leader Jack Layton's office was contacted on each appointment, but complained that the government's process of mailing out letters seeking comment within seven days of receipt is designed to stifle opposition scrutiny.
Dewar said such policing of appointments wouldn't even be needed had Harper kept his 2006 election promise to create an independent appointments commission.
He also pointed to Rights and Democracy's 1988 creation under the government of Brian Mulroney, who appointed Ed Broadbent its first president.
"This is an institution that, ironically, was founded by a Conservative government to take the politics out of human rights and democracy promotion - to the point where the first president of Rights and Democracy was a New Democrat."
The current appointment fracas is just the latest twist in an obscure, insider battle at the agency that is turning into a riveting political potboiler:
- The entire staff of 47 at the Montreal-based head office signed a letter to Cannon this month that declared non-confidence in board chairman Aurel Braun and two other board members, Jacques Gauthier and Elliot Tepper, and asked that they resign.
- Beauregard's widow wrote Braun accusing him "hypocrisy" for providing condolences to her dead husband on the agency website. Her letter was leaked to the media.
- At the first board meeting since Beauregard's passing, Gauthier - the same board member in whom staff had declared non-confidence - was selected interim president.
- And a week ago, as Beauregard was being buried in Ottawa with all staff on hand, the agency's 11th-floor Montreal office was broken into and two computers were stolen, including that of the communications director - but not $40 in petty cash that insiders say was readily visible.
Braun has since imposed a media blackout on all employees, saying they need written permission to speak to the press.
Cannon has appointed an assistant deputy minister to investigate the agency's troubles. But Goodale is skeptical of government goodwill, pointing to the board's selection of Gauthier as interim president.
"If the government was really trying to calm the waters, to rebuild goodwill to try to establish their bona fides, surely they would have made a different selection," he said.
Dewar noted that the past president, Beauregard, was also a Conservative appointee but had proved himself above partisan politics.
"All of a sudden the government, for whatever reason, decided they wanted to change the direction of the institute," said Dewar.
That change of direction was signalled by two new appointments last March and culminated when two more were appointed in November, effectively giving board chairman Braun majority support. Those appointments were not contested by the opposition.