Rights and Democracy: Where to begin, where to begin

David Matas’ letter, posted in its entirety below, gives such free play to misdirection, tautology and double-standard that one hardly knows where to begin picking it apart. But let’s start at the heart of his argument, which is that since the staff of the organization had “no dispute over policy” with the board, the staff has no right to disagree with the board over anything.

First, some first principles. When one talks about “Rights and Democracy,” one is discussing three entities. There is the government, the board, and the staff. The government appoints the board; the board selects a president (UPDATE, Sunday: I got that wrong. Sorry. The government also appoints the president directly, as it did with Beauregard) who sits on the board and, through him, has influence on hiring and firing, though the staff has union and labour-law protection. Lines of authority move downward. When the staff published a letter calling for the departure of three board members, of course the staff had no power to make that happen. Employees were merely saying, as loudly as they could, what they thought of the bosses. To some extent there are two competing fictions in this dispute. (1) The staff claims a bogus independence from the board because it suddenly really doesn’t like the board. Matas, in an earlier piece, leveled some appropriate critiques at the staff’s claims of independence from the board. I’d argue, on the other hand, that if you had been treated the way this board has treated staff members for most of a year, in accounts that have not been credibly disputed, you’d be trying to claim independence from the board too.

But there’s another fiction. (2) The government asserts an entirely bogus independence of the board from government. Here’s Lawrence Cannon doing it in the day’s other big English-language article on Rights and Democracy, from the Star. When Cannon meets only with the board president, listens only to that man’s (highly contestable) version of events, and then calls the whole thing “an internal matter at an arms-length agency,” he is hiding behind Mommy’s skirts, a familiar posture for this minister.

The board didn’t spring fully-grown from the forehead of Jupiter; it was appointed, name by name, by the government. It’s easy enough to draw the connections. Brad Farquhar ran for the Conservatives. Ian Brodie thanks Marco Navarro-Génie in the acknowledgments of his doctoral thesis. And so on. Any government has a perfect right to name people it likes to boards. But that makes it all the more rich when the government suddenly proclaims that it has nothing to do with a dispute involving the board. In fact, I do believe Ian Brodie’s thesis had something to say about such things.

But onward. Here’s the nub of Matas’s argument:

It is most unusual for the staff of any organization to ask its leadership, those responsible for conduct and management of its affairs, to resign, and to justify that request by asserting independence.  What to the staff seemed to be harassment by the Board leadership may have been no more than Board resistance to rejection by staff of accountability to the Board.

Whatever the subject matter of this dispute, one thing was clear.  There was no dispute over policy.   The editorial to which [R&D communications director] Charles Vallerand responded indicated that the dispute between the Board and staff was over policy.  Vallerand wrote: “this is not the problem”.

A dispute over the role of a board arrives in a context.  Where there is agreement in substance, there is no foundation for a debate over process.  Debates about process flare up in the context of disagreements over substance.

Got it? (1) What looked like harassment “may have been” only the Board’s “resistance” to the staff’s “rejection… of accountability.” (2) But whatever. There was “no dispute over policy.” (3) Therefore “there is no foundation for a debate over process.” In other words, since everyone (now) agrees that Al Haq was a poor recipient of Rights and Democracy money — or at least, since Rémy Beauregard was cowed at the end of the last and worst eight months of his life into saying he wouldn’t make such a donation again — there is no disagreement between board and staff. Any debate is merely about process, and “there is no foundation for a debate over process.”

If this argument actually meant anything, it would go both ways. The staff would have no right to claim harassment. (Incidentally, here’s what “to the staff seems to be harassment by the Board leadership” these days. Three staff members are suspended with pay while a private detective investigates their work equipment and their activities. Several employees were questioned eight days ago at the Rights and Democracy office by the interim president in the presence of this detective, Claude Sarrazin, without Sarrazin’s profession or the reason for his presence being explained to them. They had to look the guy up on later, after the meeting was over, on LinkedIn. No staff member may now speak to me about any of this on penalty of dismissal. Aurel Braun goes on TV and spews all sorts of accusations right and left; to rebut him, staff members would have to seek his written permission. At this point, students of irony will want to remind themselves that the name of the place is “Rights and Democracy.”) None of this would matter; since the Al Haq thing is supposedly settled, there is no right to claim harassment.

But by the same token, the board would have no right to claim that the staff is rejecting accountability. Here, too, there would be “no foundation for a debate over process.” It’s worth pointing out here that the new board majority has systematically failed to demonstrate any case of the current staff “rejecting accountability” since 2008. They pop up here and there, portraying their dispute with the staff as a fight over accountability, but they can never show anybody fighting back. Meanwhile, DFAIT carried out a five-year review of Rights and Democracy in mid-2008 and found it tickety-boo. Rémy Beauregard showed up at the Commons foreign-affairs committee to offer more accountability; Farquhar and Elliott Tepper, who today sign op-eds calling the guy an opponent of accountability, sat in the room and watched him testify. That’s… bold.

But no matter. David Matas has now discovered a doctrine whereby, since Beauregard finally decided he wouldn’t do the Al-Haq thing if he had a do-over, the staff now has nothing to complain about. That the board gets to complain unfettered and unrebutted by either the staff or the government, well, that’s just a bonus.

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