Trudeau government sets new record for vacant appointments

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has set a new record for the number of unfilled government appointments, with 594 jobs currently vacant or occupied by someone whose appointment has past its expiry date, CBC News has learned.

From judges to board members, hundreds of positions waiting to be filled

The number of appointments that are vacant or past their end date has been rising since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has set a new record for the number of unfilled government appointments, with 594 jobs currently vacant or occupied by someone whose appointment is past its expiry date, according to an analysis by CBC News.

A year after the Liberals assured Canadians their new open, merit-based appointment system was in place and would fix the problem, the government's ability to make appointments is still plagued by backlogs and bureaucracy.

The mandates of several key watchdogs including the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, and the information commissioner who oversees Canada's access to information system, are scheduled to expire in coming weeks. The position of chief electoral officer, who runs Canada's elections, has been vacant since Marc Mayrand stepped down at the end of 2016.

The hunt is also on for a new RCMP commissioner to replace Bob Paulson, who left June 30, and for a federal ombudsman for victims of crime.

Thursday, Trudeau announced Nancy Bélanger is Canada's next lobbying commissioner and Raymond Théberge will be the official languages commissioner.

Nominees for officer of Parliament positions normally go through committee hearings and a vote of both the House of Commons and the Senate. With two weeks to go before Parliament is to rise for the Christmas break, candidates for the other impending vacancies have yet to be announced.

Conservative MP Rob Nicholson, says he can't understand the problems making appointments.

"This is very surprising to me. There are obviously many qualified Canadians to handle these different roles and the government has been slow right from the start."

A successor has yet to be named for Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson whose mandate has already been extended three times. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The number of vacant positions has been rising since Trudeau came to power in November 2015.

An analysis by CBC News found that 518 positions appointed by cabinet, known as governor in council positions, were vacant or occupied by someone whose appointment was past its expiry date. Governor in council positions can range from six-figure jobs heading government bodies or Crown corporations, to part-time appointments with modest per diems on boards of directors.

The Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs website lists another 54 vacant judgeships across the country. However, David Taylor, spokesman for Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, said there are currently 63 vacancies, despite the minister naming seven new judges in November and appointing or elevating 93 judges so far this year.

A year ago there were 61 vacancies, prompting concerns about growing backlogs in criminal trials. 

"The stubbornness of the vacancy rate is due to the high number of supernumerary elections and retirements on the federal bench," said Taylor. "That number will fall."

Currently, 13 of the Senate's 105 seats are unoccupied.

Altogether, 594 appointments are waiting to be made. In March 2017, it was 575 — up sharply from the backlog of more than 300 appointments a year ago. Currently, 430 jobs are completely vacant. Another 164 positions are occupied by someone overdue to be renewed or replaced.

The problem isn't confined to a handful of agencies. A third of federal government bodies analyzed had more than half of their positions waiting for appointments.

In its dying days, the Conservative government went on an appointment spree, filling every available position and making 49 "future appointments." 

Initially, Trudeau's government blamed the vacancies on its plan to overhaul the appointments process to make it open, merit-based and nonpartisan.

The number of citizenship judges across the country has been dropping and is now down to six. (Craig Edwards/CBC)

Paul Duchesne, spokesman for the Privy Council Office, said "significant progress" is being made.

"To date, over 19,000 applications have been received and over 400 appointments made following an open, transparent and merit-based selection process, up from 100 appointments in March of this year," he wrote in an email. "Additionally, approximately 740 appointments have been made through other selection processes."

Duchesne said there's also more diversity. Nearly 60 per cent of those chosen were women, over 10 per cent were from visible minorities and 10 per cent are Indigenous.

Duchesne said "selection processes are underway" for officers of Parliament positions and the government is prepared to make more interim appointments, if necessary, to ensure positions don't become vacant.

But while appointments are being made, the number of vacant jobs continues to outstrip the number of people being named to fill them.

Conservative MP Rob Nicholson questions why the government is taking so long to make appointments. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Karl Salgo with the non-profit think tank the Institute on Governance, said delays in filling positions on government boards, agencies and quasi-judicial bodies can affect performance.

"Obviously, the fewer people that you have, the more vacancies you have, the more risk there is to the governing body's oversight capacity or the decision-making body's capacity to make the decisions that are required."

There are a growing number of vacancies for citizenship judges. Of the 22 judges in office when the Liberals came to power, only six are left and two of those appointments are set to expire on Dec. 20.

Cultural institutions affected

At the National Gallery of Canada, 91 per cent of the board of directors seats are vacant or due to be renewed.

At the Canadian Museum of History it is 83.3 per cent while at the Canadian Museum of Nature it is 72.7 per cent.

CBC President Hubert Lacroix's mandate expires on Dec. 31. A successor has not been named. There are four vacancies on CBC's 12-member board and three directors past their end date.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen says the appointments process is 'broken — particularly when it comes to officers of Parliament. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Vacancy rates are also high at two bodies that dole out research money. Twelve of 15 seats — 80 per cent — of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's board are empty as are 77 per cent of the board of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

New Democrat Nathan Cullen said the appointments process is "broken."

"From judges to immigration to watchdogs of Parliament, Mr. Trudeau and his government seem to have a real problem with just doing the basics of the job, which is to make sure that there are people there doing the work on behalf of Canadians."

Cullen and Nicholson both question whether Parliament is going to have enough time to ratify appointments to officer of Parliament positions before Christmas.

Nicholson is concerned by vacant judgeships in Alberta and the shrinking number of citizenship judges.

"This is an important part of what the government does which is to provide people with the opportunity to become Canadian citizens. I'm quite concerned that over the next couple of months that we're going to find that there are going to be big, huge delays because they have not moved on that."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

Clarifications

  • The numbers in this story pertaining to judges and the overall numbers have been updated based on information provided following publication.
    Dec 01, 2017 12:05 PM ET

About the Author

Elizabeth Thompson

Senior Reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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