In the six years since the Harper government came to power, Canadian taxpayers have spent millions of dollars on supporting a federal appointments commission that doesn't exist.

The money has disappeared into a bureaucracy set up to support the  commission — a bureaucracy that seems to have just about everything except a commission to support.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper personally announced the creation of the Public Appointments Commission in the spring of 2006, one of the first acts of his newly elected Conservative government and a centrepiece of its much-touted accountability policy.

P.O.V.

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At the same time, the government created a new federal department called the Public Appointments Commission Secretariat to support the commission with a budget of more than $1 million a year.

By cabinet decree, the secretariat reports directly to the prime minister.

In theory, the commission was to oversee the hiring process for hundreds of federal boards and agencies, ensuring appointments are made on merit and not just doled out to partisan pals of the party in power.

It all sounded like a good idea at the time.

But on the same day Harper introduced the new commission, he also announced its first commissioner would be respected Alberta businessman Gwyn Morgan, a prominent Conservative and friend of the PM.

A month later, the federal opposition parties voted to block Morgan's appointment.

Secretariat lived on

Visibly angered and embarrassed, Harper scrapped the commission in retaliation.

But no one scrapped its bureaucracy, the appointments secretariat. Far from it.

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Peter Harrison, former head of the Public Appointments Commission Secretariat. (CBC)

The morning after Harper killed the commission, the secretariat's top bureaucrat, Peter Harrison, flew to London for a week of research.

In an interview with CBC News this week, Harrison said that in the absence of a commission to support, the secretariat spent its time "developing approaches (to appointments) that an eventual commission could look at and approve."

A highly respected academic and former senior public servant, Harrison says that without a commission in place, his secretariat ran out of useful work to do in less than a year.

By then, government documents show the secretariat had spent $843,000.

The Harper government paid out another $82,000 in severance to laid-off employees, and shut down the whole thing.

But not for long.

Seven months later, there was still no sign of a public appointments commission.

Nicer offices

But suddenly the secretariat supporting the non-existent commission was back in business.

It hired a deputy executive director at a salary of more than $150,000, along with an administrative assistant.

They moved into apparently much nicer offices at more than double the rent Harrison's much larger group had been paying in a government building three blocks away.

The secretariat hired outside consultants and drew on the services of other federal departments.

By fall of last year, government documents show the Public Appointments Commission Secretariat had burned through just over $2.5 million in cash and donated federal services.

And still there is no sign of an appointments commission.

Exactly what the rather unique secretariat accomplished for all that cash remains something of a mystery.

One of its main preoccupations seems to have been writing reports, setting out its annual plans and priorities, most of which are remarkably similar from one year to the next.

$700,000 in pay and benefits

Notably, the bureaucracy with nothing much to do has routinely given itself high marks for exceeding expectations.

The one senior bureaucrat in the operation for the past four years apparently collected over $700,000 in pay and benefits before retiring from the public service last fall.

Officials in the prime minister's department say the secretariat currently has no staff, but otherwise there is no change in its status.

New Democratic Party Interim Leader Nycole Turmel, says the government needs to make an immediate choice: either start up the appointments commission or shut down its secretariat.

For its part, the prime minister shows no signs of doing either.

Documents show the government is budgeting $1.1 million for the secretariat in the coming year — or about $300,000 if there is still no commission to support.

A lot of money to do what, exactly, is not clear.


Greg Weston can be reached at greg.weston@cbc.ca.