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Tories defend choice of government insider for federal privacy czar

OTTAWA - The Conservative government is dismissing criticism that its nominee for federal privacy commissioner is too much of an insider to be an effective watchdog.

Justice Department lawyer Daniel Therrien is a well-qualified candidate who would bring significant experience in law and privacy issues to the position, said Dan Albas, parliamentary secretary to the Treasury Board president.

"This appointment was made following a rigorous process that identified Mr. Therrien as the best candidate," Albas told the House of Commons in response to NDP concerns.

Therrien, who has worked for several federal agencies, is assistant deputy attorney general for public safety, defence and immigration at Justice. He co-led negotiations on privacy principles that govern the sharing of information between Canada and the United States under the new perimeter security pact.

NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie said a parliamentary officer should not be auditing policies that he himself developed — especially when they're as controversial as the one concerning the Canada-U.S. security deal.

Albas disputed Leslie's logic.

"According to the NDP, having actual experience working on privacy issues in government somehow makes you less qualified to be privacy commissioner."

Leslie's objections followed a May 23 letter to Stephen Harper from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who asked the prime minister to reconsider his decision to nominate Therrien. Mulcair said the career public servant "has neither the neutrality nor the necessary detachment to hold this position."

Throughout his career, Therrien has helped develop and implement several government initiatives on public safety that have been criticized for their failure to protect fundamental rights, Mulcair wrote.

The privacy commissioner monitors compliance of government agencies and private companies with federal privacy laws, and handles complaints from the public about alleged violations.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau — also consulted on the nomination, in keeping with the Privacy Act — told Harper that Therrien would be an excellent candidate. "His knowledge and experience, as well as his distinguished record of public service, will be of great benefit to Canadians," Trudeau wrote.

The "one-sided" nature of Therrien's government experience worries Ken Rubin, an Ottawa public-interest researcher who has long pushed for strong access to information and privacy laws.

"How will those with privacy complaints get a fair hearing?" he asked Thursday. "Privacy protection deserves much better."

The issue is not Therrien's integrity or goodwill, but the fact his past work creates a perception of bias, said Micheal Vonn, policy director at the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

"This is an officer who is required to be scrupulously independent," she said.

"Canadians are not going to buy this, as indeed the privacy community is not buying it."

Therrien's appointment requires approval of the Commons and Senate, though the Conservative majority in both houses likely will ensure confirmation.

He would replace interim privacy czar Chantal Bernier, who served as assistant privacy commissioner before taking on the top job when Jennifer Stoddart retired last year.

Bernier raised concerns about the perimeter deal in 2012, saying it put the personal information of Canadians at risk because in some cases it allows the United States to pass that data to other countries without permission.

The principle on sharing information falls short of the standard recommended by the federal commission of inquiry that examined the Maher Arar torture case, Bernier said at the time.

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