duminică, 23 ianuarie 2011

One Kinglet to ruin us all

Liberal Paul Szabo brought up a question of privilege in the House, January 29th. If it made the news, it’s been pretty low key. Not an exciting topic to many. Some may not think it is worth even mentioning. It is, however, an extremely serious matter not only because of what was done, but because of what it shows of Harper’s contempt for the electorate.

Szabo began his charge by reminding the house of what bloggers have come to call “the pod people,” specifically the case of the Steve Harper government designating its own drone “to serve the role of a quasi-member of Parliament instead of the elected member” - Nathan Cullen, NDP.

Mr. Paul Szabo: It raised an interesting issue because on January 11, 2008, during our break period, a constituent came to my office. I was there. The constituent asked about the serious issue of the policy of the government related to the importation of goods from countries such as China where there has been some problem in terms of health and safety.

We immediately contacted Service Canada to find out if it had the documentation on this issue that is very prevalent. It told us that we had to talk to Health Canada product safety. My staff did contact Health Canada product safety and they were advised by Health Canada product safety that it would have to get back to them on that matter because there was some process to go through.

A phone call was received back from a different number totally. I have the name and phone number of the individual and I have personally talked to the person subsequently. The question that was posed to my staff and subsequently to me was: “Is your member of Parliament a member of the opposition?” The Health Canada product safety representative was asking, with regard to my query, whether or not the member was a member of the opposition.

When I learned of this communication from my staff, I immediately contacted this person. I had an extensive conversation with the individual. I was told that there was a requirement for Health Canada product safety to fill out an MP response form which it receives from Ottawa. It must fill it out including quotations and extracts from the conversation with the member of Parliament or the member of Parliament's staff.

Any individual could call Health Canada on their own, ask the same question, and get a response without being re-routed and having to provide information on a form that is used for who knows what. So why ask this of opposition MPs? Szabo has some ideas:

This matter goes to Ottawa so that Ottawa, wherever this little black hole may be in this government, it appears decides what can be told to a member of Parliament. It also wants to know specific details, I was told, to monitor our activities, so that it could be prepared should the matter ever come up in question period.

There are several things that cause concern, here. First, a federal department which is supposed to be non-partisan and is not funded by the governing party is being used to collect information on opposition members. Second, the governing party is using what should be a non-partisan department as a front to filter and edit information given to opposition members. And third, as Szabo points out, it interferes with opposition members’ ability to do their job as elected MPs. He quotes the House of Commons Procedure and Practice.

It should go without saying that a Member of Parliament needs to perform his functions effectively and that anything tending to cause confusion as to a Member's identity creates the possibility of an impediment to the fulfilment of that Member's functions. Any action which impedes or tends to impede a Member in the discharge of his duties is a breach of privilege. There are ample citations and precedents that bear this out.

...and from Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament:

Each House also claims the right to punish as contempts actions which, while not breaches of any specific privilege, obstruct or impede it in the performance of its functions, or are offences against its authority or dignity, such as disobedience to its legitimate commands or libels upon itself, its members or its officers--

In this particular regard, I do not consider this to be a partisan matter when we asked about matters such as product safety and we were making a legitimate inquiry. However, I was also told specifically by this person that if a constituent had called directly he or she would have been given the answer immediately, but if members of Parliament who are in opposition ask the question, we have to be sanitized in terms of what can be said to us.

Mr. Derek Lee (Lib.) explains how this affects members’ ability to perform their functions:

I am suggesting that in that context, the procedure adopted by the department, whether it intended it to be this or not, constitutes an obstruction in the routine work of MPs in the way we normally pursue our work in this place. Not only does it create an obstruction and a delay, but it also offers the perception of obstruction. If the constituent were told of this procedure, he or she would say, “I do not need the MP; I am actually better off to do it myself. If I use an MP, it gets diverted and I do not get my answer”.

Libby Davies points out how such actions deny the equality of all MPs.

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP): Here we have another incident where clearly the principle that all members of the House are equal, which is a founding principle of our democracy in the House of Commons, is being undermined by what has taken place.

I do want to say that I believe very strongly that public servants in the civil service act in a very honourable way. When our office deals with various departments, whether it is Service Canada or whatever it might be, we find a level of professionalism and we find that individual public servants want to do their jobs in the best way possible and to carry out their role and recognize our role. I want to be very clear that this is not any sort of negativity in terms of the public service. This is a political direction that has come through from the government and it is trying to make a differentiation between those who are government members and those who are opposition members.

She also mentions that the public service is not the guilty party in these partisan actions. That is an important point, one often overlooked by the public because the role of the public service in respect to Parliament is not well understood. The incredibly ethically and honesty challenged Tony Clement, however, counts on such ignorance as he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the nameless, faceless, but always incompetent and corrupt public servants (in their view).

Clement: On the question of privilege the member for Mississauga South raised, I have the blues with me. Apparently in a conversation with a staff member of Health Canada's product safety branch he was asked the question, “Is your member of Parliament a member of the opposition?”

I want to assure members of the House that this is not standard operating procedure at Health Canada. I was not aware of this until the hon. member raised this issue. We will certainly make it clear to members of the public service and staff members that this is not a relevant or appropriate question to ask.

Remember, now. The request had to go to Ottawa where someone from Ottawa returned the call and asked specific questions then filled out a form. Are we to believe that some public servant got it in their head to suddenly set up such a procedure, set up a secret colleague in Ottawa, well, in some empty office, I guess, and have this co-conspirator call the opposition member for information, then fill out a form and...and..well, do what with it, exactly? And the really tricky part - keep the Health Minister in the dark the whole time.

Let me explain why it is impossible that this was done without Clement knowing. Anyone familiar with the public service and federal departments knows that while most have an elected Minister in charge of the department, that department absolutely cannot be run as a branch of the elected government. Writers are not allowed to insert partisan statements in their products. Departmental sites must - MUST - remain free of partisan content. The reasons for this are crucial to a democratic system. If any ruling party controlled the public service, they could control a significant amount of the information that reaches the public and present only what favours their political goals. They would also be in a situation to pressure public servants to act according to those political goals rather than in the interest of public service.

Public servants are very aware of this policy. They would not take it upon themselves to suddenly act in a partisan fashion. It is not in their best interest, and it is highly unethical. Another reason Clement cannot be believed in his outrageous, ridiculous lie that a public servant implemented this procedure without his knowledge is the chain of command in the public service when it comes to changing policies and procedures. Departments have sections that review policy and policy changes. They make recommendations which cannot be implemented until approved by the Deputy Minister - you know, that person appointed by the ruling party? The Deputy Minister rarely signs off on anything significant without the approval of the Minister in charge of the Department - in this case, the man you can trust to be untrustworthy - Tony Clement.

Considering Clement’s recent blame-the-public-servant act, blaming and firing Keen, this latest was no surprise. He then went on to vaguely blame a whole lot more people for a lot of tenuous, unrelated things:

Sometimes in the House, Mr. Speaker, things get a bit confused. Sometimes we have people who cross floors. Sometimes we have people in the opposition who think they are in government. Sometimes we have people in government who still think they are in the opposition. However, in this case I think it is pretty clear that this kind of question is not necessary. I do take it very seriously and certainly will find an appropriate response for the hon. member.

So what? Clement apologized, promised - promised it won’t happen again because, you know, he’s such an honest guy and works for an even more honest guy. What’s the big deal, then?

Ms. Libby Davies (NDP): Mr. Speaker, very briefly on the same point, we appreciate the fact that the Minister of Health has come in to talk about his department, but I think the original question of privilege raised by the member for Mississauga South raises the question about where else it might be happening. Apparently there was a form in existence. I am hoping that the minister as a member of the cabinet will look not only at his own department but at others as well, because I think we need to know and be assured that this is not happening in other departments.

Oh, come on, Libby. What are the chances of another, unrelated public servant spontaneously getting the idea to do the same thing in another department, and similarly entice some secret person to assist them?

Mr. Derek Lee (Lib.): I personally attempted to get information from a different government department. It was the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. I contacted the person and asked the question. The person said, “I am afraid I cannot give you the answer. I have got to give it to the minister's office”. I spoke a little while longer and finally the person in the department said okay, and gave me the answer. I was able to finesse the answer. The civil servant was good enough to give me this very routine answer to a question, but apparently the department was under instructions to refer the matter elsewhere within the department.

...I would suggest that the motion include an order requiring the delivery from the department of the forms that are being used to deal with this procedure inside the department.

Yes, that form should be tabled, or I should say those forms, and the public should be told about them in detail.

This practice is just one of many where Harper is attempting to control the public service and use it as an extension to his own party. We have these cases, the famous pod people, several instances of partisan statements turning up on departmental websites, and if there is still any doubt, click this link to the Government of Canada website. You’ll think you mistakenly linked to the Steve Harper Party site.

The Bloc adds their concern about the CONs undermining of democracy:

Mr. Pierre Paquette (Joliette, BQ): The Bloc Québécois has no reason to disbelieve what (Szabo) told us; the facts he shared seem to show that the machinery of government now distinguishes between elected members who are Conservatives and in power, and opposition members.

In this case, it is quite clear that Health Canada's procedure discriminates against the member. In my opinion, for the past several months, if not the past several years, the government has been taking steps to impede the work of opposition members, and this can be seen in all sorts of situations.

Yesterday, a point of privilege was raised about the fact that the Minister of Foreign Affairs had not informed the House that Canada had stopped transferring Afghan prisoners to the Afghan authorities on November 5, I believe, even though this House had been told the opposite.

...I would like to draw my colleagues' attention to the aerospace announcement made by the senator and Minister of Public Works and Government Services. He was present along with all the candidates for the island of Laval, even though there is no Conservative member in that area. The message was that if people voted for the right party next time, these ridings and the people in them would reap the benefits. I find this very damaging to democracy.

...Recently, a Conservative member was in Rivière-du-Loup along with our friend from Repentigny. Some seniors were protesting the Conservative government's failure to keep its promise to make retroactive guaranteed income supplement payments. The Conservative member implied that if the seniors voted for the right party next time, they could expect to receive the retroactive payments they are entitled to, which the Conservatives had promised.

In my opinion, this sort of behaviour is widespread. That is why the Bloc Québécois members take the events reported by the member for Mississauga South extremely seriously. We would like you to rule on this point of privilege, Mr. Speaker. With this attitude—in this case, we are talking about Health Canada, but there are other cases as well—the government and the whole government bureaucracy are truly impeding the work of opposition members, who form an essential part of democracy, even Canadian democracy.

The Steve Harper Government of a Rapidly Eroding Canada has to go. Through these “little” under the radar moves, Harper is gnawing away at our democracy. Little instances, at times, but added together, they are devastating.