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Marco Mendicino adds to the Liberal government’s paperwork problems

We might still have a real conversation about why and how the Correctional Service of Canada decided to transfer Paul Bernardo to a medium-security facility. But it’s increasingly unclear that Marco Mendicino will still be the public safety minister whenever that conversation happens.

For the Trudeau government, the damage threatens to go far beyond the career of one minister

A man adjusts his hair.

We might still get around to having a real conversation in this country about why and how the Correctional Service of Canada decided to transfer Paul Bernardo to a medium-security facility.

But it's increasingly unclear that Marco Mendicino will still be the public safety minister if or when that conversation happens.

In the meantime, the Conservative leader's decision to demand the minister's resignation on Wednesday likely only ensures that Mendicino remains in place until a cabinet shuffle expected sometime later this summer.

The demand for Mendicino's exit was prompted by the CBC's report that staff in the minister's office were aware of Paul Bernardo's pending transfer as far back as March 2. Subsequent reporting confirmed that the Prime Minister's Office was also made aware in March and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was himself briefed on the transfer on May 29.

According to the version of events presented by the government, the minister's staff did not feel it necessary to tell him about the transfer of one of Canada's most notorious murderers until May 30, a day after the move was made and a day after Trudeau was briefed.

It's not obvious why Mendicino's advisers would keep their advance notice to themselves.

According to the minister's spokesperson, the office spent those weeks exploring whether the minister had any discretion to overturn the CSC's decision — and determined or decided that no such option existed. That is an important point that should be part of any debate about prison transfers.

But that apparent lack of options doesn't mean there was no reason to tell the minister about something that he inevitably would be asked about by reporters anyway.

WATCH: Poilievre, Mendicino get into fierce debate about Bernardo transfer

Poilievre, Mendicino trade heated words over Bernardo prison transfer

14 hours ago

Duration 3:13

During an intense exchange in question period, Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre asked Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino about what he knew of Paul Bernardo's transfer to a medium security prison. Poilievre has called on the minister to resign.

And if they really did neglect to alert the minister to Bernardo's impending transfer, it's still puzzling that they also apparently failed to keep him from describing the transfer as "shocking" when he released a statement on June 2. That's not the word to use when, conceivably, you could have known about the event in question for three months.

In that same statement, Mendicino expressed concern with how the transfer was handled and said he would be speaking to the CSC commissioner directly. But it's now obvious that Mendicino could have done that before the transfer occurred.

Mendicino has now issued a new directive that stipulates, in part, that the CSC must "formally and directly" notify the minister when a dangerous or high-profile offender is transferred. That only reinforces the fact that something went terribly wrong here.

Is a minister about to lose his job?

Despite the highly emotional and traumatic subject matter, this episode might still be marked down as only an unfortunate breakdown — except that it's difficult to view this latest controversy as an isolated incident, either for the minister or this government.

The Conservatives presented their own lengthy list of Mendicino's mishaps on Wednesday. And while some of the items on that list may have been unfairly framed, Mendicino's time at public safety has also been much messier than it needed to be.

A year ago, he talked himself into trouble when he suggested that the advice of law enforcement agencies had led the federal cabinet to invoke the Emergencies Act. A lack of clarity about what that advice entailed eventually culminated in an earlier round of demands for Mendicino's resignation.

Several months later, Mendicino's gun control legislation turned into an unnecessary problem for the government. After it passed comfortably at second reading, the Liberals decided to try to amend the bill while it was at committee.

Pandemonium ensued and the government ultimately was compelled to back down. More than a year after C-21 was first introduced, it is still winding its way through the Senate.

In the media realm, three similar things in a row constitutes a trend — and so now Mendicino will be described as "embattled" or "beleaguered."

If it still seems unlikely that Mendicino will resign or be fired, that's only because a government almost never gains anything from such transactions. If anything, the resignation of a minister usually only confirms that something went sideways. And when the Official Opposition is demanding someone's resignation, a government has all the more reason to deprive their rivals of a victory.

A prime minister is more likely to hold on and wait for the next cabinet shuffle, at which point a minister can be given a different portfolio (or dropped entirely) as part of a series of moves. For that reason, the consequences flowing from this latest episode might not become apparent until the prime minister — as expected — resets his cabinet this summer.

Another problem with the flow of information

But the government's problems go beyond Mendicino and questions about the corrections system. As NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh noted on Wednesday, this is not the first paperwork-related breakdown for the Liberals.

"I think this is a problem that's bigger than just a minister resigning," Singh told reporters. "There's a culture in this government where multiple ministers have had serious allegations of not properly reading emails."

In April, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan had to admit he had missed emails that might have alerted him to the fact that a senator was distributing unauthorized travel documents. And one of the major findings in David Johnston's report on foreign interference was that a key memo from CSIS failed to reach Bill Blair, Mendicino's predecessor as public safety minister.

WATCH: Poilievre demands Mendicino's resignation

Poilievre calls for Mendicino to resign

19 hours ago

Duration 1:03

Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre calls for Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino to resign following a CBC News exclusive that says staff in the minister’s office were notified of Paul Bernardo’s prison transfer months in advance.

One such incident looks unfortunate. Two seems sloppy. Three suggests there might be a real problem.

A year ago, this government was struggling to gain control over a series of breakdowns in service delivery — things like issuing passports. The ministers involved eventually got their departments back on track but the government came away from that experience with the sense that it needed to put a renewed focus on basic competence — on simply making sure the machinery of government runs smoothly.

The last few months suggest that the flow of information within government might be as big a problem now as passports used to be.

There is, as always, some chance that these are merely isolated incidents, that there won't soon be another example to add to this list of email-induced controversies. But the Liberals probably can't afford to assume that.

Even if there is no new public safety minister come the fall, the government has much more to fear from very basic — and damning — questions about its competence.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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