Evidence of meeting #27 for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was commons.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

12:20 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

Again, I don't think that was a point of order at all. I think it actually underlines my case, which is that the role of the ethics committee is to hold government to account, not to hold former staffers in the third party and drag them here to trash their reputation. That is an over-reach of this committee. We've seen already a number of incidents where they've tried to turn this committee into a kangaroo court and they've ended up looking rather ridiculous because they haven't thought this through.

For example, my honourable colleague wrote demanding an investigation into the New Democratic Party convention and then made all kinds of allegations about thousands of dollars of illegal money changing hands, which I don't know if he said he saw or not. The poor Ethics Commissioner was brought before us and the Lobbying Commissioner brought and there was no evidence. This was just a complete smear. I hear him over there still demanding that he had evidence, but he didn't present it.

You can make these accusations sitting around the table. You can trash people if you're the government. But then they never come through with any evidence.

It's like yesterday in the House, where they're now accusing the Liberal Party of suppressing their own vote. I think we saw the issue with the interference in the Federal Court, where he tried to bring a judge before our committee, completely ignoring the standard limitations of parliamentary convention between the role of the courts and the role of Parliament. He said it didn't matter because he was the master of his own house. But of course that's not true.

We saw them attempt to again overturn the Speaker and demand unredacted documents that were at the heart of a court case, a Federal Court case, a direct interference in the court case. Then they used the line that they were the masters of their own house, so that they could abuse whatever privilege they were given under the limited mandate of this committee.

We saw the excellent legal review from Robert Walsh, who sent a real warning shot about the abuse of this committee by the Conservative Party and the attempt to undermine the long-standing sub-judicial convention, the long-standing limitations on the role of parliamentary committees to investigate but not interfere with the courts. But when it suited them, they felt that this was perfectly okay to be able to undermine the parliamentary tradition of this country to score a cheap political point. That's a staggering thing to do when you're in government.

What we do here in Parliament is we establish precedent very much like the court. So when you see a parliamentary secretary come in with whatever the latest hot-button government issue is, their willingness to subvert the long-standing Westminster traditions that don't just affect Canada but actually have repercussions within the parliamentary traditions around the world, you see their willingness to actually shake the credibility and the foundations of how we carry our work out in Parliament, for whatever cheap political purpose of the day.

Today, of course, the real issue is the issue of widespread electoral fraud that is rocking the country, and the Conservative Party is certainly scrambling to blame everybody else. I think they're now blaming Elections Canada for this electoral fraud scheme. So they need a game-changer and they've set upon a former staffer in the Liberal Party as an example they will make. They will drag him before the committee and they will usurp the work of our committee in order to change the station on probably the most serious issue of electoral fraud in memory. It's at least as serious as the recent in-and-out electoral fraud we saw, which the senior heads of the Conservative Party had to cop pleas on because they were busted: they were fully guilty, and they knew it.

They're trying to divert our attention now on this issue of the so-called VikiLeaks. I'm astounded. I sometimes give my colleagues more credit than they seem to be due, but I would have thought that in light of the Speaker's ruling this morning, which I thought was--

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

Scott Andrews Avalon, NL

On a point of order, Madam Chair, I'm just wondering why the member is now looking at apparently leaving the committee on his very own motion that he's discussing. He decides that this not an appropriate time to share with us at committee his thoughts and dealings with this particular motion.

12:25 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Jean Crowder

Mr. Andrews, I'm not sure that's a point of order.

I'm going to come back to Mr. Angus.

12:25 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

Thank you.

I think the issue we are dealing with here is the complete contempt they've shown for the Speaker's ruling this morning. The Speaker's ruling is relevant.

As much as Mr. Del Mastro thinks this is his own personal court and he can bring in whatever witnesses and hang them however high he wants, we are subject to and creatures of Parliament. The highest order in our Parliament is our Speaker, and I've had enormous respect for the work Mr. Scheer has done in this Parliament in setting a tone.

I think we really need to go through the ruling this morning carefully.

I think it's very interesting. The issue of Mr. Toews' claim that his right as a parliamentarian was interfered with because he had to put up with people calling him strikes me as the underlying contempt we see from the Conservatives for democracy. The minister didn't like the fact that people were upset with a bill that intruded on the lives of average Canadians. This is where this all stems from.

This was Mr. Toews' personal bill to bring forward legislation that would spy on average Canadians. It caused a huge and justifiable storm of response from people, who said, “Are you telling me you think you have the right to create these ad hoc inspectors to go in and demand documents from buildings without any warrant? Are you telling me in the bill the minister has a right to put on whatever listening device he wants to listen in on telecommunications?”

March 6th, 2012 / 12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Colin Mayes Okanagan—Shuswap, BC

On a point of order, Madam Chair, we're drifting away from the motion and the topic and falling into another personal attack against the minister.

We're trying to find out whether this was unethical behaviour of not only the person or the party.... If the honourable member would just stick to the motion, I think that would be acceptable.

12:25 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Jean Crowder

Mr. Angus, if you could remain relevant—

12:25 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

I think it's very important, though, because we are talking about what was ethical and what happened in the behaviour, and I'm going to get to that.

In the Speaker's ruling this morning he said that this claim of having to listen to outraged constituents was somehow a breach of parliamentary privilege. Of course that was absurd, so he took that aside. Then there was the issue of the so-called Vikileaks, and I have to admit I've never read a single one of these Vikileaks. I will get to Vikileaks in a moment.

It seemed that he took the standard parliamentary response, which is that there was this gentlemen's agreement. In the old days they would have called us gentlemen; now, fortunately, we have many more women involved, and it's made us a better place. There was a gentlemen's agreement that when you apologize for your actions this was sufficient. The Speaker said the Liberal leader had apologized for the action of one of his staffers, so he felt the issue should be dropped. Of course that doesn't fit the Conservative frame where they're trying to divert attention from electoral fraud, so they want to beat this into the ground.

The third part of his ruling, which he handed over to the procedure and House affairs committee, was on the issue of the anonymous posting. I think this is very interesting. What makes the anonymous video worthy of investigation is the issue of threat: you either change what you're doing or we will embarrass you or we will reveal documents about you. That is a direct interference with the right of a parliamentarian. And that is a serious interference, because since Parliament began we've seen the issue of protecting the privilege of the members of Parliament to carry out their work.

In terms of Twitter and Vikileaks, we're moving into all kinds of uncharted territories. There are perhaps dangerous precedents the Conservatives may be attempting to intervene with in order to change the channel on the electoral fraud. In the world of Twitter, everything's anonymous. I receive messages all day. Some of them are ugly; some of them are hateful. When I speak up for first nations I regularly receive hate mail from anonymous people. I guess I could find out who they were if I looked hard enough, but they tell me they hate me. They think I'm a liar. They think first nations people should freeze to death in the cold. I've received those.

That's Twitter; it's a different world. Now, if someone called me at home and said that, I might consider calling the police, because I'm being interfered with. But in the world of Twitter, anonymity is part of it. But what we're seeing here is the issue of treating Twitter feeds the same as the anonymous leaks, which is different. The anonymous threat is a direct threat: you change this or we will punish you. Whereas in Twitter, people can write to me and say they hate me. They can twist my words. They can take what I said in the House and they can mix it all up. I guess if I were thin-skinned, I could go after them. Or they can actually say things that are true, and that's another issue.

I have not looked at the Twitter feed at all on Vikileaks. I'm not interested in the personal affairs of Mr. Toews. But the issue of ethical behaviour then becomes a question that I feel our committee is going to have to determine. Were these claims true or false? Because this is a different issue. If Twitter is being used to libel someone, if Twitter's making things up about someone's personal life, then that is certainly an abuse of privilege.

As we go forward, the last thing I want to do is spend my weekend getting caught up on the Vikileaks feed. I think the Conservatives need to understand that if we're talking about what is ethical in Twitter and what's not, the fundamental question is whether or not it's true. Was this staffer making up these allegations? Is there validation in court documents? Is this something that will be verifiable? Because I certainly expect that if we're going to start charging people on Twitter who make fun of us, we're creating a dangerous precedent. I'm certainly more than willing to take my lumps from whatever Twitterati are out there who can say whatever they want about me. But if they're saying something libellous, well, that's a different story.

So on the question of the Vikileaks question, I think it's very distasteful that we're being asked to adjudicate on this. But we are going to be needing to ascertain whether this Vikileaks feed is truthful or whether it was made up, whether it's verifiable or whether it wasn't. If it's verifiable, then it's a whole different issue from whether this was some allegation or smear. I think the Conservatives are desperate to change the issue of electoral fraud.

I don't think it's fair that they put one of their own ministers out in the limelight like this and turned the light back on them, saying that we are now going to look at the Vikileaks, we're going to find out what was in it, and we're going to find out what was said. I think that exposes all manner of people to a more degraded system, but that seems to be where they're willing to use our committee. Rather than our addressing ethics issues, or much of the stuff we could be updating on privacy, we're now going to be focusing on someone with a BlackBerry with apparently a court document, retyping it out into the public realm. What does that mean for Parliament?

I don't think we're going to be able to ascertain that someone who has a copy of a court document who releases it publicly has committed a crime, but it's certainly embarrassing, and it's certainly difficult. Part of what we face as parliamentarians is that sometimes what's personal and what's private does get out there. It is distasteful. We've seen parliamentarians use it in past attempts to embarrass elected ministers because of their personal lives. I would think our committee is not one where we should be going there, but obviously this is a government that thinks very differently from me.

I'm concerned that this government is also setting up two really cynical standards. We go back to the issue of the role of the committee to hold government accountable. When we see political staffers interfering in the work of ministries, when we see political staffers trying to deep-six information that citizens have a right to obtain, that is within the purview of our committee because that is interfering with the work of government. That's where our committee has a right to ask and to find out.

The Conservative Party told us that all their staffers are protected, that it was unacceptable that their staffers would be brought forward to explain their actions in interfering with the public's right to know, or their monkeywrenching with the public service. They have shielded their staffers within a cloak, so that the political staffers within the various departments may be able to do anything, and yet the ethics committee would not be able to ask them a single question. They said they'll send in Minister John Baird, who said “The buck stops with me”.

Now, when it comes to a former member of the Liberal caucus staff who sends out some Twitter messages, the Conservative Party is taking a completely different point of view, which is that they are going to use the power of their majority to go after a staffer in the third party on something that has absolutely nothing to do with the workings of government.

12:35 p.m.

Conservative

Brad Butt Mississauga—Streetsville, ON

Point of order.

Madam Chairman, I don't think the member has read the motion. This motion is about the use of House of Commons resources, that's what the motion is for the committee to investigate, not all this other wild, crazy stuff. It is one meeting, one individual, where we're asking him to come forward to talk about his use of House of Commons resources in this issue. It is very clear what it is. I wish the member would speak to this motion, and not all the theatrics of all the other nonsense he's been spewing.

12:35 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Jean Crowder

Mr. Butt, I assume your point of order was on relevance.

Mr. Angus, if you would speak to the motion, it is about the use of House of Commons resources.

12:35 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

Yes.

I'm going to reiterate, because my friend perhaps didn't understand, and I don't want to him to leave this room not fully understanding, that when the Conservative political staffers were interfering with the work of the civil service, it was an interference in the work of government. Yet the Conservative Party took the position that their staffers were protected; that it was completely unacceptable for members of Parliament to investigate any staffers working in a minister's office who might or might not have interfered with the workings of the civil service and the rights of Canadians to ensure that government is accountable.

They have created this firewall around their own political staffers, and yet they want to know: did the Liberal staffer use a BlackBerry or did he use a computer on the Hill to come out with the Vikileaks? What I'm saying is that there's a complete double standard here.

The member may be interested in whether it was a House of Commons computer or BlackBerry. If this is going to go forward, the issue for me is the attempt of this committee to go after people on Twitter because they don't like them; it's whether or not this government is going to be interfering with people who embarrass them on Twitter.

So if the government wants to bring forward this motion, then I am going to find out whether what was said on Vikileaks was true or was false. Is it verifiable? Is there data to back it up? This is the fundamental issue here: that the government can start deciding to find out who in the House of Commons has a Twitter account and go after them.

What is disturbing about Vikileaks is that it was all about the personal life of a minister. Again, I've never read it. But if the government decides that they're going down this route, then it is perfectly fair within the work of this committee to ascertain whether those statements were true or false—not whether it was done on a House of Commons computer or done at home.

The issue is the role of a Twitter account. I don't want him to come out of here confused. There's a difference between Twitter and comments on Twitter—and sarcastic comments, and twisting words on Twitter—and what happened with Anonymous.

This is why I think the Speaker made a fundamentally just ruling. The issue with Anonymous was the “you will withdraw this bill or else”; “You will change your course as a member of Parliament, or else we will embarrass you.” That is an interference in the rights of a parliamentarian; that is interference in the work of this House of Commons.

We can never be intimidated when we go in to vote. This goes back to Laurier almost being kicked out of the church. They could not interfere with his right to represent his constituents.

That is different from what we're talking about with Twitter, and whether or not people on Twitter are making comments, whether they're misrepresenting, or whether they're telling the truth.

So if the government is going to go after a Twitter account because it's from someone they don't politically like, then the issue for me is what was said on that Twitter account. Is it true? Is it verifiable? If it's false, then it's actionable. But if it's true, then that's just the unfortunate reality of a world in the anonymous and Twitter age.

I think that as parliamentarians we have to be very circumspect indeed about going down a road whereby we will decide to start investigating people who have Twitter accounts in the House of Commons.

So to reiterate, Madam Chair, because I'm still not sure that my colleagues fully get the implications of what they've just asked for, they want to go after the former Liberal staffer, who has lost his job. This is quite a punishment for someone who thought, perhaps, that he was just engaging in the political discourse of the day: that he'll be brought before this committee and investigated for the fact that he used a computer.

I find this absolutely bizarre. I find this a disrespect to our work as parliamentarians. It's a disrespect to the minister, who, even though he had a rather thin skin when it came to the fact that he didn't like hearing from constituents who didn't like his bill and thought that was a point of privilege.... At least the Speaker ruled carefully.

But, Madam Chair, you ruled very carefully and judiciously this morning, and they ignored it. I think what we're seeing is that the role of Parliament has to respect certain conventions. If it doesn't respect those conventions, then it turns into the law of the jungle, and that seems to be what this committee has been doing again and again under the parliamentary secretary.

When or if the government brings this forward, we are going to have to look at the veracity of the Twitter feed and what was said and whether it was true, and determine what kinds of documents back up the claims that were made on Vikileaks.

12:40 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Jean Crowder

Thank you, Mr. Angus.

Mr. Andrews.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

Scott Andrews Avalon, NL

Madam Chair, I'd like to propose a little friendly amendment to the motion so that it would read:

That the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics call Mr. Adam Carroll, former Liberal Research Bureau employee, for one meeting to examine his use of House resources in order to conceal his anonymous public attacks on a member of Parliament, and that the committee examine all government resources used on Twitter accounts, and that this meeting take place by Thursday, March 8, 2012.

I think that's a little friendly amendment.

12:40 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Jean Crowder

In the absence of the mover of the original motion, I will say that the motion would not likely be accepted by the mover, so it will be on the floor for debate.

We are now debating your proposed amendment, Mr. Andrews.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

Scott Andrews Avalon, NL

Madam Chair, the mover of the motion isn't here. I think you—

12:40 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Jean Crowder

So I have to assume that....

Mr. Calkins has a point of order.