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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

RCMP watchdog gets patronage; Canadians just get patronized

January 27, 2010
GARY MASON, Globe and Mail

Give Ian McPhail marks for honesty anyway.

When the newly appointed watchdog of the RCMP was asked by The Globe and Mail's Colin Freeze what he knew about the federal civilian oversight body he was taking over, he said our reporter likely knew more about the agency's background than he did.

The Prime Minister's Office must have loved reading that.

Mr. McPhail's new job as chair of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP is one of the most cynical and discouraging appointments this government has made in the past four years. The only qualification that the man seems to have for the job is the past work that he has done for the Conservative Party.

One of the most critical positions in the country has become a mean-nothing patronage appointment.

As Mr. McPhail acknowledged, he's been active in Conservative politics since the 1970s. His support was recognized by the Ontario Conservative government of Mike Harris in the 1990s, which asked Mr. McPhail to head up a few different boards and commissions. Otherwise, most of his career has been spent as a lawyer specializing in wills and estates.

Mr. McPhail is replacing Paul Kennedy, who assumed the chairman's job in 2006 after a long and distinguished career as a civil servant in various justice and law-enforcement-related portfolios. But Mr. Kennedy did two things the federal Conservatives didn't much care for - deliver very public speeches that called on Ottawa to give his toothless agency the powers it needed to be a truly effective oversight agency, and, secondly, issue reports into RCMP conduct that did not cast our national police force in a positive light.

So after four years, the Tories gave Mr. Kennedy the heave-ho.

At least Mr. McPhail's appointment does one thing: remove any doubt about just how low a priority keeping our national police force honest and accountable is for this government. This at a time when support for the Mounties among the Canadian public is at an all-time low; and when an increasing number of provinces are bringing in the type of tough civilian oversight of their municipal and provincial police forces that the RCMP should be subjected to nationally.

(For a disturbing look at just how flawed and organizationally inept the RCMP have become, I recommend a new documentary by Bountiful Films and filmmaker Helen Slinger entitled Mounties Under Fire. It will be rebroadcast on CBC this summer, but you can also see it online at: http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/doczone).

Mr. McPhail has been given a minimum one-year term as chair. This is about how long it will take before he begins grasping the complexities of the position. In my opinion, it took Paul Kennedy two years before he began hitting his stride as complaints chair - and knowledge-wise he had an enormous head start over the man succeeding him.

I figure the RCMP have at least a year to run wild.

The CPC had been operating on a base budget of about $5-million a year. However, the last couple of years, Mr. Kennedy managed to persuade the government to give him an extra $3-million-plus so he could launch more in-depth investigations into allegations of RCMP misconduct as well as conduct broader analysis of contentious issues such as taser use.

That extra funding is now at risk.

Without it, some of the best work the CPC does will disappear and staff will have to be laid off. Also, the CPC will have to rely almost exclusively on RCMP officers to investigate complaints against the Mounties instead of using its own investigators.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Is Mr. McPhail going to be in any kind of position to argue for that extra money before budgets are set in the next couple of weeks for the coming fiscal year? He'll still be trying to figure out where the washrooms are.

It sounds like Mr. McPhail plans to run a much different operation than his predecessor anyway. He told The Globe he believes that the CPC chair does not have to be an expert in criminal law or civilian oversight in general. He said his responsibility is to understand how "an administrative agency should operate." Mr. Kennedy felt his job was to ensure that Canada's national police force was held accountable for its actions.

I'm sure the Mounties can't believe their luck. Looks like they finally got their man.

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