'There seems to be a paralysis': Trudeau government has backlog of more than 300 appointments

The Liberals have a lot of hiring to do. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have accumulated a backlog of more than 300 appointments that are due to be filled, a CBC News investigation has found.

Insiders say 'the centre' has been 'overwhelmed'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has accumulated a backlog of more than 300 appointments in its first year in office. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have accumulated a backlog of more than 300 appointments that are due to be filled, a CBC News investigation has found.

Almost 20 per cent of governor in council (GIC) appointments, which include roles with Crown corporations, port authorities, agencies and tribunals, are currently vacant or occupied by a Conservative appointee whose term is past its expiry date.

Overall, 170 GIC positions are listed as vacant. Another 116 are past their appointment's expiry date but the incumbent has been allowed to remain in the role until he or she is either replaced or renewed.

Currently, 61 federally appointed judge positions are vacant, including one seat on the Supreme Court of Canada.

In the Senate, 20 per cent of the 105 seats are empty. The government has pledged to fill the 21 spots "by the end of the year." Three more senators are due to retire in January.

Taking a toll

In some cases, incumbents have been temporarily renewed only a day or two before their appointments were set to expire because the government had not yet launched the process to find a replacement.

For example, Graham Fraser's appointment as commissioner of official languages, which was set to expire Sunday, was extended Thursday for two months. The government has yet to issue a job posting to find his successor.

Graham Fraser's appointment as commissioner of official languages was extended Thursday for two months, only days before it was set to expire. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The backlog has taken a toll on the operations of some boards and government bodies.

The CRTC hasn't been able to hold a planned hearing on French music since November because it doesn't have the necessary three French-speaking commissioners.

The parole board, where 21 per cent of positions are currently vacant, says it's being stretched, with its remaining part-time board members putting in additional hours to ensure the work is done.

Alberta judges warned a Senate committee in late September that the 61 vacant judge positions could affect court proceedings, saying the province's justice system is so backlogged they are now setting trial dates for 2018. Last week, an Edmonton judge stayed a murder charge against Lance Matthew Regan, citing delays in bringing the case to trial caused in part by the backlog in Alberta's justice system. ​


Liberal government insiders privately point to the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office as the source of the problem, saying "the centre" has been "overwhelmed."

The government is confident the problem will be resolved soon. It says the backlog was caused in part by the decision to overhaul the appointments process and bring in a more open, balanced, merit-based system. The new system is now up and running and vacancies are being filled, officials say.

"Before it was just people being picked based on partisan connections or who was friends with who," said Liberal MP Mark Holland, parliamentary secretary to the minister of democratic institutions.

There seems to be a paralysis within this government about making decisions.- Michael Cooper, Conservative deputy justice critic

"Now, we have Canadians from all walks of life stepping forward and saying they want to serve — many with absolutely extraordinary backgrounds — and it takes time to go through those."

There are 25 job postings on the government's GIC website, some of them for multiple positions. While some are full-time positions with six-figure salaries, others are part-time jobs that come with per diem payments.

Opposition critics say the appointments backlog is symptomatic of a bigger problem with Trudeau's government.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper says the appointments backlog is part of larger problem the Trudeau government has in making decisions. (CBC News)

"There seems to be a paralysis within this government about making decisions … and it appears to extend to decisions respecting appointments," said Michael Cooper, Conservative deputy justice critic.

"This really goes to the effective functioning of boards, agencies, commissions and Crowns, so it's very serious."

NDP justice critic Murray Rankin, a former administrative law professor, is troubled by the vacancies.

"This is a real crisis in administrative justice in Canada," he said, adding the Trudeau government has had a year to make appointments. "A lot of these agencies do important work."

NDP MP Murray Rankin says the appointments backlog is a 'crisis in administrative justice.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper's government went on an appointment spree in the weeks leading up to the last election, not only filling most of the positions that were vacant but making 49 "future appointments" of individuals whose terms weren't due to be renewed until well after the election.

Privy Council officials say when Trudeau took office, there were very few "critical" appointments that had to be made right away.

The Liberal government decided to reform the system and make part-time appointments subject to the same kind of formal selection process used in the past for full-time appointments.

"Until the new approach has been implemented, appointments or re-appointments will only be made to positions essential to government business or to those that deliver important services to Canadians," Trudeau said in a press release on Feb. 25 to announce the new selection process.

A search of orders in council adopted by the Trudeau government revealed that the terms of 98 appointees were renewed for only a year while the government drafted its new appointments policy. The government made another 30 stopgap appointments of less than a year to deal with appointments that were about to expire.

'A remarkable response'

The first job posting drafted under the new process was published at the end of April — nearly six months after the government was sworn in — and an online portal has been set up to allow candidates to apply for open positions.

By the end of September, there were approximately 2,700 applications for just over 50 job competitions.

"It has been a remarkable response," Holland said. "The Canadians that are stepping forward to fill these positions and are looking to serve has been absolutely remarkable."

Liberal insiders say the time it took to set up the new system coupled with the sheer volume of applications have contributed to the backlog. They say the new system only got up and running in earnest toward the end of the summer.

While the number of appointments that fall under each minister's responsibility varies, some ministers, such as Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Trudeau himself, have very few appointments that are vacant or past their expiry date.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau, whose portfolio has the greatest number of GIC appointments, has the most vacant or past their expiry date, with 72.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau has more appointments to fill than any other minister. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has 28 vacant positions to fill while Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has 22, including the treaty commissioners in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Marc Roy, spokesman for Garneau, points out that some of the 72 positions on the GIC website that fall under Garneau's responsibility are selected by provincial or municipal governments, not the federal government.

He said the minister's office is working closely with the Prime Minister's Office and Privy Council Office "to manage vacancies in a speedy and efficient manner, triaged according to the most pressing needs."

As for the judicial appointments, the government would only say they will be filled "soon."


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.