I would, and in order to give a full context for our discussion today, it is clear that there have been many problems with this particular bill. This has been pointed out by experts across Canada and particularly the various commissioners who are targeted by this bill. We've heard from them briefly and, of course, there has been a reaction on the government side that perhaps the bill should be significantly changed.
That's a good sign, but the public should know that certain commissioners contacted you and this committee again, Mr. Chair, by letter, which is kind of unprecedented. It's the second time that commissioners have written to the chair of this committee on this particular bill, and I think it's important to go through what they have to say, for the public record.
The Commissioner of Official Languages wrote the chair on May 8, 2014. That's really not too long ago. He expressed further concerns with the bill. Mr. Fraser wrote that he fully and continues to endorse the views expressed in a letter that was jointly signed by the agents of Parliament, and that he also endorses the messages in the submission from the Information Commissioner of Canada and in the presentations that the committee heard on February 25 from Marc Mayrand, Michael Ferguson, and Madam Dawson.
He continues to say that he's particularly concerned about the bill's apparent conflict with the Public Service Employment Act and the values and ethics codes of the public sector. Some of the amendments that the NDP will be bringing forward today address this very point.
He continues to think that the bill could have an impact on the hiring process, that there are issues of procedural fairness, that he is concerned about the impact from the lack of definition of partisan conduct and the potential impact that an examination of an employee's conduct may have on investigations following an allegation of partisan activity.
He goes on to note more personally that his years as a journalist taught him the importance of not only fairness but also of the appearance of fairness, and that throughout his career, when he covered governments of different political stripes, he had a reputation of treating them all fairly. He wants to make clear that this isn't a partisan attack by him, but that he has a non-partisan view and that he is still fundamentally concerned about what this bill represents.
He goes on to say that he respects the public service and its independence and objectivity. He also recognizes that the public service has a right to engage in political activity, as defined by the Public Service Employment Act, and that we should be careful when considering those political rights.
He goes on to say that many who have worked for a minister or a member of Parliament have subsequently chosen to join the public service and that he's always considered this as a positive move. Some of Canada's most distinguished deputy ministers first came to Ottawa as political aides, for example.
He's concerned that the bill implies that “...partisan experience is something to be ashamed of—a liability rather than an asset.” He's worried that “...the provisions in the bill would discourage talented people who are committed to the ideal of linguistic duality from coming to work for the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.” It's a good point. He is obviously concerned that those with the most merit should be working for our public service despite perhaps having partisan political affiliations in the past—always within the standards, of course, imposed by the Public Service Employment Act, which in part 7 defines very, very clearly what public servants are expected to do with regard to political activity and partisanship.
Mr. Fraser goes on to mention the sponsor of the bill and quotes him: “In his appearance before this committee, [Mr.] Adler...said that agents of Parliament “sit in judgment on members of Parliament.”” But Mr. Fraser says that in his case, that is just completely untrue, because the Official Languages Act does not actually cover parliamentarians. He goes on to say that he would say the reverse is true; that members of Parliament sit in judgment of him; and that during that session they questioned him on his qualifications for the job before voting on his appointment. They can summons him to appear, cross-examine him, criticize him, and vote basically the budget that he receives. He says: “I report to you on whether federal institutions have lived up to their responsibilities under the Act.”
He continues to believe that it is his job to ensure that his staff “...interprets the Official Languages Act in an appropriate fashion, neither too broadly nor too narrowly, but, as the Supreme Court has put it, in a generous, purposive fashion.” He says that he is responsible for striking the balance between laxity and zeal and finding the most effective way to achieve these results, and that as an agent of Parliament, he could be called upon at any time to justify the positions that he has taken.
He goes on to say that during the seven and a half years that he has been carrying out this responsibility, partisanship has never been a factor in his work, and that there have been vigorous internal debates over many issues: whether or not a complaint is admissible or recommendations would be most effective, and whether or not he should intervene in a court case, for example. He says he is proud of the dedication that his staff consistently demonstrates to their mandate.
What I find impressive about this, Mr. Speaker, or Mr. Chair, rather—I will get it right this morning—is the heartfelt cry of the commissioner with regard to this bill, expressing himself in such a candid way. For those of you who know Mr. Fraser, it's kind of out of character. It is clear that, to say these things, he is fundamentally worried about this piece of legislation.
He's under probably personal attack by this bill to say this: “I am proud of the dedication that my staff consistently demonstrates to their mandate.” He says that those who work in the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages do so because they are committed to the principles embodied in the act, and that he witnesses that commitment every day. He says that not once has he felt that these internal debates were affected by partisan considerations. On the contrary, he says, they were honest, candid exchanges of opinion on how the act should be interpreted and applied, how he should meet his responsibilities as a commissioner, and how he could achieve positive results. Ultimately, he says, the final decision on these questions was his, and his alone.
Again, the tone of this letter is amazing, Mr. Chair, for its candidness, its defensiveness with regard to his role. He's defending his record as being an objective agent of Parliament. It goes on to say:
As a small organization, the Office of the Commissioner needs people with a wide variety of experience, whether in regional issues, investigations, policy, corporate services, legal work, communications or parliamentary affairs. Political experience, in my view, is an asset rather than a liability.
If a parliamentarian feels that his decisions have been or appear to have been affected by partisan considerations, then he says he would be happy to appear before the committee or any other to explain the reasoning behind his decisions. He ends if by thanking you, Mr. Chair and the committee. What a remarkable letter it is at this point of the discussion.
It is a cry from the heart, as they say in French. He fears the consequences this bill might have. He had fears before the amendments moved by the Conservatives and by the NDP, and he is still right to have fears.
We unfortunately have only the amendments brought forward here today. That is the nature of the process. He obviously had not received this information before reading his letter. The fact nevertheless remains that it was very important for me to talk about it.