NDP, Liberals decry process that made Daniel Therrien privacy watchdog

One former privacy commissioner said that making Daniel Therrien privacy commissioner was like leaving a fox to guard the henhouse. But that perception might have changed after Therrien's brief appearance Tuesday before a government committee, during which he showed the watchdog has some teeth.

Critics question how and why he got the job

The secretive process behind the appointment of Daniel Therrien as privacy commissioner has drawn criticism. But during his appearance before a committee on Tuesday he showed some independent views. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Opposition MPs on Tuesday protested the process that led to the government appointment of lawyer Daniel Therrien as privacy commissioner, but NDP members dialed back their criticism of Therrien himself.

Therrien, who worked on government initiatives that privacy experts have said failed to protect Canadians' private data, was described by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair in a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper as  having "neither the neutrality nor the necessary detachment" to head the privacy office.

One former privacy commissioner said that making Therrien privacy commissioner was like leaving a fox to guard the henhouse. But that perception might have changed after Therrien's brief appearance Tuesday before a government committee, during which he showed the watchdog has some teeth.

Therrien told MPs on the access to information committee about his views on privacy.

He agreed on the concept of dividing the contentious Bill C-13 on cyberbullying into two parts, so that the issue of cyberbullying could be debated separately from the issue of government engaging in electronic spying without a warrant. Splitting of the proposed act has already been rejected by government.

Therrien also said he thinks obtaining an IP address without a warrant is not analogous to looking up names and addresses in the telephone book, as the government has claimed.

'No one had ever heard of Therrien'

Privacy experts had objected to Therrien's appointment, including Colin Bennett at the University of Victoria.

In a phone interview, Bennett said that among the Canadian and international privacy community no one had ever heard of Therrien.

He related being called by a private consulting company hired by government for advice about names to fill the privacy commissioner vacancy. "When Daniel Therrien's name came along I thought, 'Well, that advice didn't go anywhere, did it.'"

Bennett also wondered why the Liberals had held back on criticizing Therrien's appointment. 

At committee, Liberal MP and longtime human rights advocate Irwin Cotler told Therrien he supported him but felt uncomfortable voting for him lest it be taken for tacitly approving the process.

Cotler, a former justice minister, had once worked with Therrien. However, he abstained when MPs voted 6-2 to confirm Therrien's appointment.

NDP MP Charlie Angus complained about having less than an hour to ask Therrien questions. NDP MP Mathieu Ravignat noted that when former privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart was appointed 11 years ago, the committee grilled her for two hours and even questioned members of the selection committee that chose her.

A secretive selection process

Therrien was selected by a secretive process in which a list of names was winnowed down to two by a committee of government officials. The final selection was made by Treasury Board President Tony Clement.

It's a mystery why, as reports claim, the list included neither the interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier nor any of the provincial privacy commissioners.

"Traditionally the government takes the best of the best for the role," said David Christopher of OpenMedia.ca, an organization dedicated to an open internet and digital rights. 

The circumstances of Therrien's appointment are similar to a process that selected Justice Marc Nadon as the nominee for a vacancy on the Supreme Court. A committee of MPs that drew up a short list of three names was Conservative-dominated and sworn to secrecy about its deliberations.

Nadon, a Federal Court judge, was semi-retired and his expertise is in maritime law, which is not the subject of many cases that reach the top court.

Some critics suspect Nadon was a favourite because he was the lone dissenting voice when the Federal Court of Appeal ruled convicted terrorist Omar Khadr had to be repatriated from Guantanamo Bay to Canada.

Nadon was eventually rejected from a seat on the highest court, not because he wasn't qualified, but because as a Federal Court judge he wasn't eligible.

The shambles was noted in question period Tuesday when Mulcair asked of the government, "Haven't you learned anything in the Nadon affair about a flawed appointment process?"

Liberal MP Wayne Easter, a former solicitor general in the Chrétien government who worked with Therrien, told host Anna Maria Tremonti of CBC Radio's The Current that this isn't the first time "[Prime Minister Stephen] Harper has appointed people, thinking they'd be soft on him."

Whether Harper thought that or not, two of his appointments — Kevin Page as the former parliamentary budget officer and Marc Mayrand as chief electoral officer — didn't hold back from pointing out when government numbers didn't add up or election laws were breached by Conservatives.

They have both been called biased by various Conservative MPs.


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