House of Commons Hansard #48 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was national.

Topics

Commissioner of Official Languages
Routine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

I have the honour pursuant to section 66 of the Official Languages Act to lay upon the table the annual report of the Commissioner of Official Languages covering the period from April 1, 2009 to March 31, 2010.

Pursuant to Standing Order 108(3)(f), this report is deemed permanently referred to the Standing Committee on Official Languages.

A message from Her Excellency the Governor General transmitting supplementary estimates (A) for the financial year ending March 31, 2011, was presented by the President of the Treasury Board and read by the Speaker to the House.

Government Response to Petitions
Routine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre
Saskatchewan

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order 36(8) I have the honour to table, in both official languages, the government's response to 10 petitions.

Safeguarding Canadians' Personal Information Act
Routine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Conservative

Jay Hill Prince George—Peace River, BC

moved for leave to introduce Bill C-29, An Act to amend the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

(Motions deemed adopted, bill read the first time and printed)

Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

May 25th, 2010 / 10:05 a.m.

Prince George—Peace River
B.C.

Conservative

Jay Hill Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I rise on behalf of the government to address the issue of ministers' staff members being called before committees to testify. We recognize that committees do have the authority to call for persons and papers; however, just because they can does not mean that they ought to in every case.

Allow me to begin by reminding members of the constitutional principles that underline relationships among ministers, officials and Parliament.

In our system of government, the powers of the Crown are exercised by ministers who are, in turn, answerable to Parliament. Ministers are individually and collectively responsible to the House of Commons for the policies, programs and activities of the government. They are supported in the exercise of their responsibilities by the public servants and by members of their office staffs.

It is the responsibility of individual public servants and office staff members to provide advice and information to ministers, to carry out faithfully the directions given by ministers, and in so doing, to serve the people of Canada. These employees are accountable to their superiors, and ultimately to their minister, for the proper and competent execution of their duties.

Ours is a system of responsible government because the government must retain the confidence of the House of Commons and because ministers are responsible to the House for everything that is done under their authority. We ministers are answerable to Parliament and to its committees. It is ministers who decide policy and ministers who must defend it before the House and ultimately before the people of Canada.

Accordingly, responsibility for providing information to Parliament and its committees rests with ministers. Officials have no constitutional responsibility to Parliament, nor do they share in that of ministers. They do, however, support ministers in their relationship with Parliament, and to this extent, they may be said to assist in the answerability of ministers to Parliament.

Page 32 of O'Brien and Bosc states:

Responsible government has long been considered an essential element of government based on the Westminster model. Despite its wide acceptance as being a cornerstone of the Canadian system of government, there are different meanings attached to the term “responsible government”. In a general sense, responsible government means that a government must be responsive to its citizens, that it must operate responsibly...and that its Ministers must be accountable or responsible to Parliament.

In terms of ministerial responsibility, Ministers have both individual and collective responsibilities to Parliament....The principle of individual ministerial responsibility holds that Ministers are accountable not only for their own actions as department heads, but also for the actions of their subordinates; individual ministerial responsibility provides the basis for accountability throughout the system. Virtually all departmental activity is carried out in the name of a Minister who, in turn, is responsible to Parliament for those acts. Ministers exercise power and are constitutionally responsible for the provision and conduct of government; Parliament holds them personally responsible for it.

On page 139 of the second Gomery report, “Restoring Accountability: Recommendations, Chapter Seven: The Prime Minister, Ministers and Their Exempt Staff”, Mr. Gomery says:

--Ministers need to understand clearly that they are accountable, responsible and answerable for all the actions of their exempt staff.

There is a clear case to be made that the accountability of political staff ought to be satisfied through ministers. Ministers ran for office and accepted the role and responsibility of being a minister. Staff did not.

Committees will often need to seek factual information and explanations at a level of detail that ministers are not able to provide as effectively as public servants. In these cases, the information that public servants provide in such contexts is essential to our system.

But we should be very clear. This is no substitute for ministerial responsibility. When ministers choose to appear before committees to account for their administration, they are the best source of accountability and they must be heard. Public servants and ministerial staff support the responsibility of their ministers. They do not supplant it. They cannot supplant it.

Like public servants, ministerial staff are not accountable to Parliament for governmental policies, decisions or operations. Any information given by ministerial staff on these topics would be on behalf of their minister. Moreover, unlike public servants, ministerial staff are not involved in departmental operations and are therefore not in the same position to answer questions about these operations.

Despite having these views about ministerial accountability, the government had accepted that ministerial staff could appear before the ethics committee after being invited by that committee. The government operations committee took similar action regarding the subject of lobbying.

There were expectations, however, that due process and fair play would be part of the process.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, and I commend you for upholding this principle, the minority relies on the rules for its protection. It demands certain rights to counter against the strength of the majority. These rights must be applied fairly and they have not been at committee.

Normally witnesses are given a chance to give a statement. During a meeting of the government operations committee, the committee decided that the staffers would not be allowed any time for opening statements. Later, they were given a minute or two to introduce themselves.

The committee also decided, upon the instigation of the NDP member for Winnipeg Centre and the chair, that if there was to be any resistance from the staffers to their invitation, that the clerk be authorized to serve them with subpoenas.

Having served on committees in the past, this is not the normal course. Witnesses are invited and presumed co-operative. Sometimes there are reasons to decline or there are scheduling conflicts. Committees are usually respectful and do not, as the government operations committee did, threaten the witnesses right off the top. The whole process begins with intimidation and hostility.

It is worth noting that as an MP, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development had an absolute right, just as any member of Parliament has the right, to attend the committee meeting and participate in its proceedings. Nonetheless, the chair told the minister, “You are not able to address this committee directly”. He made this ruling based on the fact that the minister was not invited. Contrast that with the appearance of an HRSD official, Patricia Valladao, who appeared alongside her ADM, Peter Larose, in spite of Mr. Larose not having been invited to appear. Unlike the standard applied to the minister, the chair allowed Mr. Larose to answer questions and participate in the proceedings of the committee.

Then there was the chairman of the ethics committee, who made threats of contempt in The Hill Times regarding the appearance of Mr. Togneri, an intimidating statement which was not his to make. It is for the committee to initiate and for the House to agree.

Then there was the government operations committee meeting of May 12, where the witness was not a minister's staff member. The questioning involved very serious allegations about people's conduct, but was not subject to any rules or principles of fairness. The witness was repeatedly asked leading questions such as, “Can you speculate?”, questions that would never be acceptable in a court of law.

People's conduct is being attacked without any of the fairness or procedural safeguards or principles of justice that would be found in a court or tribunal.

These are but a few examples of what is playing out currently in our committees.

It is not that different from what happened in the last Parliament, I contend, when the tyranny of the opposition made that Parliament dysfunctional.

On March 29, 2007, you referred to the challenges of a minority Parliament, Mr. Speaker, saying in part:

--but neither the political realities of the moment nor the sheer force of numbers should force us to set aside the values inherent in the parliamentary conventions and procedures by which we govern our deliberations.

On March 14, 2008, you further emphasized the need for all parties to respect the rules and principles of the House to avoid having committees “verging on anarchy” and being in a state of “general lawlessness”, as you yourself described it, Mr. Speaker.

You also emphasized in your March 14 ruling the first principles of our parliamentary tradition, which Bourinot described thus:

To protect the minority and restrain the improvidence and tyranny of the majority, to secure the transaction of public business in a decent and orderly manner--

You went on to comment, “It matters not that the minority in the 39th Parliament happens to be the government, not the opposition, or that the majority is held by the combined opposition parties, not the government”.

While the problems of the 39th Parliament are still to some degree with us today, there is a new game being played. The tyranny of the opposition majority has turned its attention to the men and women who make up our political staff, men and women who did not sign up to be tried by a committee, to be humiliated and intimidated by members of Parliament.

The chairman of the ethics committee rose on a question of privilege when the House last met complaining about being intimidated because the government began to push back on his conduct at the committee he chairs and his committee's treatment of our staff appearing before it. He referred to it as “a chill factor” and he believes that he is the victim.

I agree with the chairman of the ethics committee. There very well could be a chill factor but neither he nor the opposition are the victims here. The activities of his committee may be causing a chill among some ministerial staff who work very hard and competently in advising their ministers. They bring to us many talents and I expect many of them, when they accepted their jobs, never imagined that one of the skills required was to stand up to the interrogation of a bitterly partisan parliamentary committee.

They could not have expected, in our Westminster parliamentary system of responsible government, that hostile committees and tyrannical chairmen would deny them the protection of the rules and their minister. I suspect that there must be a chill running through the political staff of the opposition. Things are safe for now but in politics things change.

Political staffers are under no delusions. They serve at the pleasure of their ministers and any wrongdoing on their part will be dealt with swiftly by ministers. Ministers, after all, are the ones who are responsible and accountable. For a committee to attempt to reach around a minister and take some action against a political staffer would be wrong and does not meet the doctrine of ministerial responsibility.

As I said earlier, we accepted at first that ministerial staff would appear before committees. We did so maybe naively and maybe expecting that the Speaker's words in the last Parliament would not fall on deaf ears and that due process and fair play would be part of that process. Sadly, it was not.

When the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner appeared before the ethics committee on April 22, she said:

There are a lot of people who like to criticize, but the fact is these are people's lives we're dealing with. ... We're not a kangaroo court.

That is good advice for all parliamentarians.

Since parliamentary committees have not respected due process and fair play, henceforth, ministers will instruct their staff members not to appear when called before committees and the government will send ministers instead to account for their actions.

Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

10:20 a.m.

Liberal

Ralph Goodale Wascana, SK

Mr. Speaker, it is my obligation today, on behalf of the official opposition, to respond to the remarks of the government House leader. I thank him for sending me a copy of those remarks but, sadly, they only arrived as he was speaking.

In respect of his last comments about due process, fair play and proper behaviour in this place and in the committees of the House, I would note for his benefit that it has always been the rule and tradition, except for a couple of recent examples on the part of the government, that ministerial statements are provided in a decent interval of time in advance so that the opposition has the opportunity to respond appropriately. I will come back to this point about due process and fair play but I would simply note for the minister that it applies both ways.

In responding to the statement by the government House leader today, one cannot miss the irony or perhaps the ignominy of the minister re-announcing in the House what an aide to the Prime Minister has already announced as government policy on television a couple of days ago. It is another Conservative government policy about secrecy, preventing accountability, stifling transparency, muzzling all of the assistants who work for the Prime Minister and for various ministers in the cabinet and prohibit their attendance at parliamentary committees to give evidence or answer questions. The arrogance and hypocrisy of this position are breathtaking.

The Prime Minister's communications director, Mr. Dimitris Soudas, went on television to announce that he and his Conservative assistant colleagues are important enough and senior enough to speak for the Prime Minister and the government about all manner of government activities, indeed to undertake all manner of government activities, but they can never again be asked a question by a parliamentary committee to account for those activities.

Those people are not juveniles who need to be shielded from scrutiny. They earn something in excess of $100,000 every year and they handle the government's most important business. If they are qualified to hold the jobs they hold and to be paid the amounts they are paid at public expense, then they should be required to respond to House of Commons committee requests for information and answers to questions. Indeed, they are so required.

The position on this matter that is being devised by the Prime Minister and the government is based upon a fiction, a fallacy. The Prime Minister purports to set the rules for parliamentary committees. He claims that he holds the power to dictate who can and who cannot be called as a witness to testify at committee hearings. With the greatest of respect, he is wrong.

The Prime Minister and his government are responsible to Parliament, not the other way around, and the Prime Minister and his government must comply with what Parliament, not the government, determines to be the rules. This was clearly defined and reinforced in the recent case involving the production of uncensored documents about the risk of torture in Afghanistan. Various members of Parliament asked repeatedly to see the uncensored documents, noting that the government could not possibly set itself up as prosecutor, judge, jury and Supreme Court all at the same time, but the government declined. It stonewalled the answers to the questions.

Then, last December the House passed a motion ordering the government to produce the uncensored documents. It was Parliament's equivalent of a subpoena, but again the government stonewalled. It even shut down Parliament altogether through an illegitimate request for prorogation hoping to change the channel. Parliament was put out of business from December to March. However, it did not work. Parliament would not take no for an answer.

The Speaker's landmark ruling in April confirmed, and every legal, constitutional and parliamentary expert agreed, that the House has the absolute right to demand the documents and the government has the absolute obligation to comply. The government does not have the legal right to withhold information that parliamentarians believe they need to hold the government to account.

The situation with witnesses to be called before parliamentary committees is exactly the same. Parliament has the unfettered right to call any and all witnesses who parliamentarians believe have relevant information that is needed to hold the government to account. It is Parliament's decision, not the Prime Minister's decision.

The government's attempt to stymie the work of parliamentary committees, reminiscent of the manual that the government produced a couple of years ago about how to subvert the work of committees, raises the basic question of what the government has to hide.

The Conservative staffers, who have been called to testify recently, have been asked to shed light on two important and legitimate inquiries. One is the effort to track the apparent lobbying activities of former Conservative member of Parliament, Rahim Jaffer, and his business partners who were operating, apparently, through a network of old buddies involving, apparently, a great many ministerial assistants. They were the ones holding the meetings, receiving the representations and passing along the requests for departmental intervention. This is potentially contrary to law and it does demand investigation.

A former minister, connected to those issues, has been thrown out of cabinet, expelled from the Conservative caucus and subjected to a police investigation, all at the behest of the Prime Minister. Obviously the Prime Minister must think these issues are serious. It is ludicrous for the government to maintain the fiction that potential accomplices, wittingly or unwittingly, cannot be asked to tell Parliament what they knew, what they did and why.

The second area of inquiry by Parliament is requiring the evidence of staffers to get the facts about multiple ministers apparently violating Canada's access to information laws by improperly blocking the publication of information. Again, the Prime Minister has commented on this matter saying that it is important to follow the access to information rules but he is now purporting to prevent Parliament from getting to the bottom of the government's behaviour with respect to access to information.

In these matters, it is just not appropriate for the government to take the position that ministerial staffers who are directly involved in these matters may well know more about the facts of what happened and when it happened than the minister would know. It is just ludicrous to suggest that those staffers cannot be called before a parliamentary committee to explain to Parliament how this lobbying activity was going on or how the interference in the access to information process was going on.

Members of Parliament have the right to know what the assistant to the Minister of State for Science and Technology was doing with respect to representations received, or what an assistant to the Minister of the Environment was doing, meeting apparently with Mr. Jaffer in the office of the former minister of state for the status of women. They have the right to know which member of the staff of the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities apparently wrote a note on a government document saying, “From Rahim, get to the department for an answer”. Members of Parliament have a right to know what the staffer to the former minister of public works, now the Minister of Natural Resources, was doing participating in the evaluation of one of Mr. Jaffer's projects.

The questions that are being asked may well be uncomfortable and may raise issues that the government would rather not have raised but the fact is that they are serious issues that need serious attention by the government and they should not be stonewalled by the government.

The government House leader today proclaimed the principle of ministerial responsibility and ministerial accountability. It comes perhaps four and a half years late but at least the government has wrapped itself in those principles.

The question that remains from the minister's statement today is will the government put those principles into effect? Will it stop hiding behind the behaviour of its assistants and conveniently throwing those ministerial assistants under the bus, blaming them for things that go wrong rather than assuming responsibility for the behaviour of those assistants?

I think, for example, of the letter-writing incident involving an assistant by the name of Jessica Craven, who was apparently writing letters of support on behalf of her minister, trying to leave the impression that this was somehow a public groundswell of support on behalf of the minister. The minister denied all responsibility and blamed the assistant.

Then there was the case of Mr. Ryan Sparrow, who apparently ordered officials in the Department of HRSDC to provide misleading information about particular advertising the department had engaged in with respect to the Olympics. I presume that the minister is now going to assume direct personal responsibility for that misbehaviour on the part of the assistant.

Then there is the case of Mr. Togneri, who intervened in the access to information process and ordered the department to unrelease certain information the department had already released in accordance with the access to information rules. I wonder if the minister is now going to claim personal responsibility for that misbehaviour on the part of Mr. Togneri, under this principle just announced today.

Then there is the case of Mr. Owen Lippert, a speech writer for the Prime Minister, who plagiarized a speech given by the former prime minister of Australia and passed it off as a speech by the current Prime Minister of Canada. I presume now that the Prime Minister is going to assume direct responsibility for that misbehaviour on behalf of that assistant.

There are the multiple cases arising from Mr. Soudas, but I will mention just one. He offered advice to the Prime Minister about something that was allegedly said by the Leader of the Opposition about the G8. It turned out to be patently false and completely wrong. The Prime Minister, nonetheless, launched a vicious attack against the Leader of the Opposition. I presume that the Prime Minister is now going to assume direct personal responsibility for the misbehaviour of Mr. Soudas in that particular case, and in other cases.

The point here is that with the announcement the government has made today, will it stop hiding behind its various ministerial assistants and will it, according to the principle of ministerial responsibility and ministerial accountability, now make all ministers, including the Prime Minister, available to parliamentary committees on all topics and in a timely way on request by those committees so that those committees can get the answers they need? If ministerial assistants are going to be barred from speaking to the committees, then surely the ministers must be there—and not just any old time, but they must there to answer questions when the committee wants those questions asked and answered.

The minister speaks about due process and fair play. It applies both ways and the government bears the ultimate responsibility for providing that accountability and responsibility. It cannot blame the opposition for simply asking the questions the government seems afraid to answer.

Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

10:35 a.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very disappointed that I must rise in the House this morning to speak to a ministerial statement, which is yet another example of the Conservative government's profound contempt for Parliament, its institutions and democracy itself.

It is unacceptable, though not surprising, that the Leader of the Government refused to provide a copy of his ministerial statement in advance, as parliamentary traditions dictate. In his statement, one of the government's supposed reasons for implementing a new directive prohibiting staff members of ministers or of the Prime Minister from being called before committees to testify is the tyranny of the opposition.

I think that the public knows full well which side—the opposition or the government—triggered the election in September 2008 to avoid being held accountable in Parliament, even though the Canada Elections Act sets fixed dates for elections.

In December 2008, who requested that Parliament be prorogued to avoid being defeated by the opposition? The Conservative government. In December 2009, who requested that Parliament be prorogued yet again, to avoid having to hand over the documents that the House called for in a December 10 motion? It is very clear that the only tyranny here is from the Conservatives, and not the opposition, which is just trying to do its job.

During one of my most recent speeches in the House, I commented on the agreement reached on May 14 following your April 27 ruling about documents concerning allegations of torture in Afghanistan. At the time, I said that I would like to see a better balance between the executive and legislative branches. Many experts and opposition members, including Bloc Québécois members, believe that, under the Conservative government, this imbalance has increased even more, with the executive assuming far too much power relative to the legislative branch. This morning's statement makes that abundantly clear.

Despite your historic April 27 ruling, the government still has not grasped Parliament's role in our parliamentary system. You made things very clear in your ruling: Parliament's role is to hold the government to account. That is what the opposition—the Bloc Québécois in particular—plans to do.

Parliament has been given significant powers to carry out that task. In your ruling, you quoted the following passage from page 136 of the second edition of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice:

By virtue of the Preamble and section 18 of the Constitution Act, 1867, Parliament has the ability to institute its own inquiries, to require the attendance of witnesses and to order the production of documents, rights which are fundamental to its proper functioning. These rights are as old as Parliament itself.

It is clear that parliamentary committees have the power to call witnesses.

On page 975 of O'Brien-Bosc, we see that this power is not restricted: “The Standing Orders place no...limitation on this power. In theory, it applies to any person on Canadian soil.”

In practice, however, we all know that this power is limited to a certain extent.

A committee cannot require the attendance of a person who is not in Canada, nor can it call parliamentarians from other legislative houses protected by parliamentary privilege. It cannot call a member of the House of Commons, a senator, the Governor General or a lieutenant governor.

Upon hearing that the government leader was planning to read his ministerial statement this morning, I searched everywhere but found no mention of an exception that would apply to political staff in general or to the Conservative government's political staff in particular.

In addition to accusing the opposition of tyranny, the government has invoked the principle of ministerial accountability to justify its decision.

This principle is also defined in O'Brien-Bosc on page 32:

...its Ministers must be accountable or responsible to Parliament...The principle of individual ministerial responsibility holds that Ministers are accountable not only for their own actions as department heads, but also for the actions of their subordinates.

This principle means that, ultimately, ministers are responsible for the actions and errors of their subordinates. But the government is trying to distort the meaning of this principle. According to this principle, a minister's subordinates include both political staff and the entire staff of their department.

This principle of ministerial responsibility has never meant and will never mean that the subordinates in question cannot testify in committee. Things would become downright ridiculous if we followed the government's logic. Would civil servants no longer be able to appear before a parliamentary committee in order to explain a government bill, program or expenditure?

Keeping political staff from testifying means that Parliament would no longer have access to those people who are closest to the everyday use of power, and these people would no longer be accountable to Parliament.

The Conservative logic is completely contradictory: the closer you are to power, the less accountable you are. That is exactly what this statement is getting at and it is the Conservative government's latest ploy to avoid accountability. Once again, it shows incredible contempt for Parliament's needs and powers as well as the powers of democracy.

Yesterday the Minister of Natural Resources told the media that it is not up to political staff to testify; it is up to the ministers.

Does this mean the Prime Minister will appear before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics at 11:00 a.m., instead of Dimitri Soudas? Is that what the statement means and what the last sentence in the ministerial statement is suggesting?

Will the Prime Minister appear before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics at 11:00 a.m.?

Really, what the government has just done is invent a new strategy to prevent Parliament from doing its work. The truth is that the parliamentary committee cannot force a minister to testify. The truth is that when the subject matter is too difficult, Conservative ministers refuse to appear before committees to testify.

The truth is that only a few weeks ago, the Minister of Natural Resources—who made the statement yesterday that it was up to ministers to testify before committees as part of their ministerial responsibilities—refused to testify regarding the Jaffer affair.

The truth is that the government shows profound contempt for Parliament, its institutions and democracy, and is doing everything it can to try to create another parliamentary crisis so it does not have to answer for its actions. The Bloc Québécois, and all opposition parties I hope, will not allow the government to do that, especially since it is a matter of confidence in the government.

Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

10:40 a.m.

NDP

Bill Siksay Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, as I respond for the NDP to the government House leader's statement, I have to note that things have really changed with the Conservatives. Gone are the days when Conservatives and their Reform predecessors clamoured for greater transparency in government, greater accountability of government. They knew in their guts that access to information was the oxygen of our democracy.

Gone are their election platform commitments to improved access to information, including a 2004 election platform that was frankly a model agenda on that important issue. After starting down the right path when they formed government, they have quickly abandoned their own promises and forgotten why they put such emphasis on access to information, government transparency and accountability.

Instead we have a government that fails in its responsibilities, makes excuses and hides behind tradition. How is this evident? There are the report cards on compliance with the Access to Information Act issued by the Information Commissioner. These report cards show, at best, an inconsistent record on compliance with the act, and at worst, shocking results. That the Privy Council Office, surely a place for leadership in government on access to information can only muster a grade of D is worrying. The fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was so bad it fell off the rating scale altogether causing the commissioner to issue a red alert is very, very serious.

The Information Commissioner has also indicated that she is undertaking a systemic review including issues related to political interference in the access to information process. She has noted that results of this review may not be available quickly and that it is a long-term project.

Media reports on the culture within government with regard to access to information are also of great concern. A series of articles in The Hill Times earlier this year reported that political staff are given mixed messages and subject to intimidation and humiliation, even yelled at when they fail to stop the release of information that the government considers embarrassing or explosive. Other media have documented how their requests for information were treated by political staff in ministers' offices removing the requested and available information and substituting political spin.

This situation demanded the attention of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics just as it is commanding the attention of the Information Commissioner. Responsibly, the standing committee sought to hear from those people directly involved, those mentioned in media reports and others. This included ministers, political staff and public servants. I know that appearing before a standing committee is nerve-racking for most witnesses and especially so when the issue being dealt with is controversial. As a member of the standing committee, I do however take issue with the charge made by the Prime Minister's director of communications and now by the government House leader that witnesses have been humiliated and intimidated. Explaining a witness's obligations and asking direct questions are neither humiliating nor intimidating.

Ministerial responsibility is indeed an important principle of our parliamentary system of government. Ministers must be held accountable and must take responsibility for the direction of their departments and for the decisions of their political staff; there is absolutely no question about it. As an aside, however, I have to note that if ministerial responsibility is so important, one does wonder why the government House leader was scooped by a political staff person in the Prime Minister's Office on today's announcement when that person released the information pertaining to this announcement on TV on Sunday.

There is also no question that in our parliamentary system there is no limitation on the ability of parliamentary committees to call the witnesses they require to do the work that they are mandated to undertake. There is no class of people who are excluded from the obligation to appear if a standing committee has reasonable grounds to believe they have something to contribute to the work of the standing committee. There is no blanket exemption for political staff. In fact, political staff, who clearly have obligations to the minister for whom they work, also have obligations to the institution in which they work. Like everyone who works in this institution, there is an obligation to respect the work of Parliament.

The motion passed by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on April 1 was straightforward. It reads:

That the committee conduct a study regarding allegations of systematic political interference by Minister's offices to block, delay or obstruct the release of information to the public regarding the operations of government departments and that the committee call before it:

... Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development

At a separate meeting or meetings:

Dimitri Soudas, Associate Director, Communications/Press Secretary, Prime Minister’s Office;

Guy Giorno, Chief of Staff, Prime Minister’s Office;

Ryan Sparrow, Director of Communications, Office of the Minister, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada;

Sebastien Togneri, former Parliamentary Affairs Director, Public Works Canada;

Patricia Valladao, Chief, Media Relations, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada; and

That the committee submit a report to the House of Commons on its findings.

The committee has undertaken that work in a responsible fashion. It has heard from the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development. It has heard from Mr. Guy Giorno, the chief of staff to the Prime Minister. It has heard from Mr. Sebastien Togneri, former public affairs director in the former minister of public works' office.

It should be noted that Mr. Togneri was summoned to the standing committee after turning down the committee's invitation to appear and that he was accompanied by his lawyer when he did appear. It should also be noted that Mr. Togneri was sworn in as a witness, something I felt important given his reluctance to attend.

The committee has also heard from Mr. Ryan Sparrow, director of communications in the office of the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

It should be noted that when Mr. Sparrow appeared, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development accompanied him despite not being invited at that time and having already testified at an earlier meeting. This came as a surprise to the standing committee and the chair. The chair ruled, and I believe correctly, that the standing committee expected that Mr. Sparrow would respond to its questions. Attempts by the minister to answer questions put to Mr. Sparrow were not allowed, but he was allowed to consult with the minister before answering.

I support these rulings by the chair of the standing committee, but I also believe this situation demonstrated that the minister took responsibility for the actions of her staff and that political staff ultimately do have a responsibility to appear before standing committees when called. I do not believe that this is a situation of the minister only or nothing, but that it is one that requires both the minister and relevant political staff.

As part of its inquiry, the committee has also heard from public servants in the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development who have responsibility for the access to information process. It should also be noted that the Prime Minister's director of communications, Mr. Dimitri Soudas, who is scheduled to appear before the standing committee this morning, had already attended a meeting of the committee apparently prepared to testify, but that appearance was postponed by a fire alarm here in the Centre Block. There was no indication at that time that there was any reason to believe he would not participate in the committee hearings.

Let me conclude by saying that I do not believe that the government House leader's statement or the announced policy are warranted. It is certainly not warranted when one examines the work and process engaged by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. It is certainly not warranted when one is aware of the context of the standing committee's work and the serious issues that have been raised about the government's commitment to access to information, transparency and accountability.

I call on members of the government to remember their time in opposition, to remember their election commitments to access to information and to remember their calls for openness and transparency in government. This policy does not serve those goals. This policy does not serve the interests of Parliament. This policy does not serve the Canadian people, who must know that the government and those who serve it, both elected and as political staff, are transparent and accountable for the work they do, the decisions they make and the actions they take.

Post-Doctoral Scholarships Exemption
Petitions
Routine Proceedings

10:50 a.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, I have the pleasure to present another petition which is mainly from post-doctoral fellows in the Montreal area. Their concern is the cancellation of the scholarship exemption for post-doctoral fellows in this budget. This tax increase will mean a significant amount, particularly to young post-doctoral students who have families to support and who do not make a lot of money. At a point in time when we are trying to encourage science and research in general, this is a negative influence on people who are thinking of doing research.

The petitioners are urging the government to engage with the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars, the research councils, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and other stakeholders in an effort to create a fair and progressive policy that will stimulate Canada's research community and make it an attractive place to recruit and retain the best talent. The point is that we should have some discussion before something like this comes forward.

Firearms Registry
Petitions
Routine Proceedings

10:50 a.m.

Conservative

Scott Armstrong Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, NS

Mr. Speaker, I take great pleasure today, May 25, 2010, to present a petition on behalf of the people of Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley.

The petition requests Parliament to support Bill C-391, a bill that would eliminate the long gun registry. The petition contains over 3,000 signatures.

Employment Insurance
Petitions
Routine Proceedings

10:50 a.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I have two petitions to present today.

The first petition is signed by dozens of Manitobans and calls for equal employment insurance benefits for adoptive parents. The current EI program provides adoptive parents with 35 weeks of paid leave, followed by a further 15 weeks of unpaid leave. A biological mother is given both the first 35 weeks and the latter 15 weeks as paid leave.

We all know that adoptions are expensive, lengthy and stressful to the adoptive parents and their family. There have been recent studies that have shown an additional 15 weeks of paid leave would help the parents support their adoptive children and would help them through a very difficult period.

The petition calls on the Government of Canada to support Bill C-413 tabled by the MP for Burnaby—New Westminster, which would amend the Employment Insurance Act and the Canada Labour Code and ensure that adoptive parents are entitled to the same number of weeks of paid leave as a biological mother of a newborn child.

Earthquake in Chile
Petitions
Routine Proceedings

10:50 a.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, the second petition, also signed by dozens of Manitobans, calls on the government to match funds personally donated by the citizens of Canada for the victims of the Chilean earthquake.

As the Speaker knows, on February 27, 2010 an 8.8 magnitude earthquake occurred in southern Chile. The community has been active organizing fundraising events since then. In fact, there was one in Winnipeg in my riding this past Saturday, May 22.

The people are asking when the Prime Minister will give the same treatment to the victims of the earthquake in Chile as he did to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti and match funds personally donated by Canadians to help the victims of the earthquake in Chile.

Aboriginal Healing Foundation
Petitions
Routine Proceedings

10:55 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, I have two petitions to present today.

The first petition has to do with the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. This petition states that the Aboriginal Healing Foundation is aimed at encouraging and supporting aboriginal people in building and reinforcing sustainable healing processes that address the legacy of physical and sexual abuse in the residential school system, including intergenerational impacts.

It also indicates that the Aboriginal Healing Foundation is making a difference in the lives of residential school survivors and following generations through counselling and cultural programs.

The petitioners are calling on the Government of Canada to leave a true legacy of action to residential school survivors and support the process of healing through an extension of funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

First Nations University
Petitions
Routine Proceedings

10:55 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, the second petition has to do with the First Nations University of Canada.

The petitioners indicate that the viability of the First Nations University of Canada was threatened by the removal of provincial and federal funding. The petitioners are asking for a reinstatement of federal funds of up to $3 million. They acknowledge that steps have been taken to improve governance and accountability at First Nations University of Canada.

The petitioners also indicate that we must not lose the valuable resource in indigenous knowledge that has been created at the First Nations University of Canada. They are calling upon the Government of Canada to work with students, staff and faculty to build a sustainable and viable future for the First Nations University of Canada by fully reinstating federal funding of at least $7.2 million.