OTTAWA — Opposition MPs accused Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly Wednesday of misleading the House of Commons after she told them a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister had never spoken to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office about an appointment — something Madeleine Meilleur seemed to confirm publicly herself.
Meilleur’s appointment as Official Languages Commissioner, a non-partisan parliamentary watchdog, has drawn opposition fire for two weeks now — ever since her nomination was formally announced on May 15.
In the Commons, both the Conservatives and the NDP attacked the Grits for nominating Meilleur, an Ontario Liberal MPP since 2003 who donated to the federal Liberals and financially supported Trudeau’s bid to be party leader.
The opposition believe Meilleur’s partisan leanings make her unqualified to serve as a non-partisan agent of Parliament, such as the information commissioner and the auditor general.
“It’s incredible to see how the Liberals are completely erasing the line between the independence of agents of Parliament and partisan politics,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said. “Her donations to the Liberal party and to the prime minister should have disqualified her from the process.”
Joly insisted that an independent process was used and that Meilleur was the best candidate of 72 who sought the job. But some have raised doubts.
Michel Doucet, an outspoken Acadian lawyer specializing in language rights, let it be known that he had applied for the job. The current interim Official Languages commissioner, Ghislaine Saikaley, also applied, HuffPost has learned.
Saikaley issued a statement Wednesday recusing herself from hearing the numerous complaints her office received about the appointment process to avoid a potential conflict of interest.
“If the [appointment] process was independent,” Conservative MP Denis Lebel asked during question period, “why did Ms. Meilleur meet with people in the Prime Minister’s Office?”
“These discussions never took place.”
— Mélanie Joly
Joly responsed that “Ms. [Katie] Telford and Mr. [Gerald] Butts never discussed with Ms. Meilleur the subject of becoming the official languages commissioner.
“These discussions never took place,” she said.
But that seems to fly in the face of comments Meilleur gave at a committee hearing on May 18.
When NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asked whom she had spoken to in the Liberal party about wanting to become a senator or a commissioner, Meilleur said she approached Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary, and Telford, his chief of staff.
“I spoke to Gerald Butts,” she said. “I know him well, because he worked for Mr. McGuinty, in Toronto, and I worked with him. …
“I expressed my interest and was told that now there was a process … an open and transparent process. I was told that I had to go through the process. That's what I did.”
Later, questioned by Conservative John Nater, Meilleur said she had also spoken to Telford in an unspecific manner.
“I had a coffee with Katie and I was asking her if I could offer my service to serve Canadians … just that I'd like to continue to serve,” she said.
In the House, Conservative MP Erin O’Toole said the evidence didn’t support Joly’s comments that Meilleur had never discussed her appointment as official languages commissioner with Butts or Telford. He asked Speaker Geoff Regan, a Liberal from Nova Scotia, to make a “prima facie finding of contempt in this house because the minister refuses to correct the record.”
Regan declined to rule and tried to shut down all the complaints about Joly after more than seven MPs stood up to suggest she was being less than truthful.
Conservative MP Sylvie Boucher objected to Joly’s suggestion that the opposition was consulted.
“That is not true,” Boucher said. “She should stop saying that.”
Joly notified the Conservative and NDP official languages critics but not the party leaders, whom she is legally obliged to consult.
“We don’t agree with the appointment at all. And she should take responsibility for that,” Boucher said.
“What a crock of nonsense.”
— Thomas Mulcair
Mulcair also complained that the Liberals had potentially appointed someone who may not be able to investigate the prime minister because her past political donations might place her in an apparent conflict of interest.
“What a crock of nonsense,” Mulcair said. “How can the Liberals explain appointing a commissioner who cannot even investigate the prime minister?”
Conservative Lisa Raitt wondered what it all meant for the appointment of another watchdog of Parliament — the ethics commissioner. Current commissioner Mary Dawson’s term expires in July and she is currently investigating Trudeau’s potential conflict of interest in vacationing at the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas.
“Are we waiting to see how somebody's chat with Gerry and Katie goes before we get someone in this place?” Raitt asked.
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