Mr. Chair, thank you for inviting me to appear before you today. I am pleased to contribute to the committee's study of Bill C-520.
During my opening remarks, I will share some general observations, with reference to relevant practices in my own office. I will also comment briefly on several specific elements of the proposed legislation.
Unlike the others covered by Bill C-520, my office is part of Parliament itself. As an officer of Parliament, my office is a separate employer that is not subject to the Public Service Employment Act. It is for this reason I'm not a signatory of the letter which I believe has been submitted to the committee by the others. However, I do agree in large measure with the views they have expressed.
Although Bill C-520 does not appear to have been introduced in response to a problem that requires fixing, there is certainly no argument to be made against greater transparency. In fact, I am a strong believer in transparency, as I have noted on many occasions, including in previous appearances before this committee.
I am satisfied that given the checks and balances already in place, my office could withstand any scrutiny contemplated by Bill C-520. However, I do note there could be some technical challenges that might arise from the way the bill is currently structured, and I will briefly refer to some of them later.
I acknowledge the importance of non-partisanship. I believe that non-partisanship is essential to the ability of all agents and officers of Parliament to fulfill their mandates. They and their staff must perform their duties in a fair and politically impartial manner and be perceived to do so. I note that non-partisanship is likely already being taken into account in the appointment process for agents and officers of Parliament. The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, for example, is appointed under the Parliament of Canada Act. That act requires that the Governor in Council consult with the leader of every recognized party in the House of Commons, and the appointment must be approved by resolution of the House of Commons.
Indeed, the principle of non-partisanship is one that underlies my approach to my role. As is the case with the others covered by Bill C-520, I have implemented a code of values and standards of conduct in my office, again, copies of which I have tabled with the committee. This document specifically and extensively addresses political activity and impartiality. It notes the importance of employees maintaining their independence from political interference and discharging their responsibilities in an impartial way. It also recognizes the effect that employees' actions and comments outside the office could have on the reputation of the office as it relates to impartiality and independence.
In addition to prescribing desired behaviours and actions, the code of values and standards of conduct for my office specifically prohibit certain actions. Employees may not participate in any political activities. They are not allowed to share publicly any political allegiance during election campaigns, for example, by posting lawn signs. Also, they must refrain from making any written or verbal comments, including in the media or on social networks, that favour or could be perceived as favouring one political party over another.
During the more than six years that I have been commissioner, there has never been a case where the work of an employee in my office has been influenced or has appeared to have been influenced by political opinions or beliefs. If such a case were to arise, it would contravene our standards of conduct and the employee would be subject to disciplinary measures up to termination of employment.
A few of my employees have previously worked in political offices of various party affiliations. As professionals, however, they perform their official duties and responsibilities in a strictly non-partisan manner. I also note that their knowledge and experience of the workings of Parliament have been very helpful in fulfilling their duties at the office. It would be an unfortunate consequence of any initiative if it became an impediment to qualified people taking on positions in the office of an officer or agent of Parliament.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe there are changes to the bill that should be considered. For example, it does not establish a clear threshold for launching an examination, such as requiring the person making the request to set out the reasonable grounds for the belief that the staff member conducted his or her duties and responsibilities in a partisan manner. Nor does it provide a process by which an employee has the right to respond to the allegation being made. As well, the bill does not define what constitutes partisan behaviour. It does not set out provisions for conducting an examination in private.
I note that both the Conflict of Interest Act and the “Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons” contain such provisions, ensuring the application of principles of procedural fairness and natural justice.
Finally, the bill is very broad and applies equally to all employees regardless of level or whether they are in a position to make or influence decisions.
In short, while I have no issue with the principle of transparency that underpins the bill, I'm not convinced that the bill is necessary. I believe that the current draft could be improved. I hope, if this bill is enacted, that the final version clarifies these matters.
Again, I thank the committee for this opportunity to discuss Bill C-520.
Mr. Chair, I look forward to answering your questions.