Evidence of meeting #156 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was commissioner.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Matthew Shea  Assistant Deputy Minister, Corporate Services, Privy Council Office
Allen Sutherland  Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Machinery of Government and Democratic Institutions, Privy Council Office
Andre Barnes  Committee Researcher

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Linda Lapointe Liberal Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

Okay, thank you very much.

My computer is still not working.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you.

Mrs. Kusie has the floor.

May 16th, 2019 / 11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Hello, Minister. It's lovely to see you, and you did a great job again last night at Politics and the Pen. You did just a lovely job.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

Thank you.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Minister Gould, you referred to the independence of the debates commission. I would say that it is not truly independent, because if it were, you wouldn't be here today for the estimates. Our committee has already heard from the Chief Electoral Officer and from the administration of the House of Commons on the main estimates. Both of them, I will point out, did not have a minister appearing on their behalf, so evidently you're here today.

Why did you not create a debates commission that was entirely independent, instead of one within your own department, where the government in power could have both political and financial control over the commission?

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

Just for clarification with regard to the Chief Electoral Officer, the Chief Electoral Officer is, of course, an independent officer of Parliament, but they do report their main estimates through me as a minister as well. I would strongly argue that they are very independent in their actions and activities. I think that's an important clarification to make.

With regard to the debates commission, the way it has been set up is really to ensure that they have the resources necessary to fulfill their mandate, but without any direction or conversation between the commissioner and the government once they've been established.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

From your appearance here today for the main estimates, it seems evident to me that your department does in fact have the ultimate authority over the budget of the debates commissioner. Is that true?

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

In fact, one of the things that I did as minister was sign authority so that the commission can make all of those decisions—

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Okay, but you did provide that signed authority.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

—because anything that is going through government spending has to have ministerial accountability, but all of those decisions are taken by themselves.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Sure, but even if you claim that you're not interfering in the budgetary decisions of the commission, ultimately you as the minister and the government of the day do have that authority. Is that not true?

11:15 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Corporate Services, Privy Council Office

Matthew Shea

Can I just jump in?

You talk about Minister Gould's department, but we are here as PCO. It's important to note that unlike a commission of inquiry, for example, which is supported by PCO, although at arm's length, this is actually a separate entity, with its own estimates and with its own deputy head, and it has the ability to make all of those decisions.

With regard to finances, I am the arm's-length service provider for them. They chose that, although they had every opportunity to go to other options and they looked at other options.

In my role, my team supports them in HR, IT, finance and all those areas. They don't brief me on that. I don't brief the minister and I don't brief Mr. Sutherland, so there is no interference whatsoever in the process. There is no interference in any of their spending whatsoever.

Our only goal as a service provider will be to make sure that they do things that follow policy and that are legal, which I think is in everyone's best interest.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

I am kind of concerned about the term “arm's length”. It's still very clear to me that the minister and the government do control the budget, so I'm wondering why you would place something so critical to our democratic institutions as a leaders debate under your department, thus compromising the commission's independent integrity by controlling the budget, rather than making it an entirely independent organization like Elections Canada.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

I am so delighted to hear from the Conservatives how important you think leaders debates are. That is really a wonderful change of tone, and I'm glad, because I hope it means that there will be full participation in this election within them.

One of the reasons we created the leaders debates and the independence of this process was to ensure that all Canadians would be able to access these debates and know that this is done in the public interest, not in backroom deals whereby previous prime ministers try to dictate the terms and conditions of how these debates take place.

I am just absolutely thrilled to hear the Conservative position on this.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

That's kind of disappointing commentary to me. It's starting to sound a little more marginal than an actual response. I feel that if you genuinely thought that something like this was so important for Canadians and was so democratic, Minister, then at least you would have provided the opportunity to have the creation of the debates commission discussed in the House of Commons. You didn't even extend that courtesy, not to mention turning down many of the recommendations that this committee gave to you in regard to the debates commission. The House of Commons didn't have an opportunity to feed into this conversation about the debates commission.

I would certainly say that we support democratic processes, but to me this serves as an example of one case in which your ministry did not.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

I think all the members of Parliament here would agree with me that this committee, as a committee of the House of Commons, in fact did a very robust study on leaders debates and fed into this process, along with the public consultations and the round tables that we held with stakeholders.

One of the outcomes of this process is that following this upcoming election, the current commissioner will report back to Parliament, and specifically to this committee, within six months of the election to talk about the process, to talk about what can be improved, and to talk about whether this should be established in statute or not.

I am really quite grateful for the input and the involvement of the House of Commons, and notably the members of this committee.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

You're making that statement even though the debates commission wasn't even debated in the House of Commons.

These reflect the recommendations that you did not take that were made by the house procedure committee. The office of the debates commissioner is under the ministry of democratic institutions and not under Elections Canada; the government chose the participation criteria, rather than the debates commissioner in consultation with the advisory panel; and the Liberal government unilaterally chose the debates commissioner, as I've gone over several times with you and with the debates commissioner himself, without any consultation with the other political parties or a fair process as set out in the recommendations.

It just sounds to me that for someone who purports to hold this as a key component and institution of the democratic process, so far it has not been installed and implemented very democratically, Minister.

Thank you.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

Do I have a chance to respond?

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

You have 15 seconds.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

As I've said many times—and I believe this is the fourth time I've appeared, in fact, on this very topic—we've had lots of engagement on this issue, and I've very much appreciated all the feedback, all the advice given, and all the challenges from this committee. I think that that has led to the appointment of a very illustrious, trusted Canadian to take on this mandate, someone who I think will be able to deliver for Canadians a debate that's in the public interest and that all Canadians will have access to.

Thank you.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you.

Now we'll go to Mr. Christopherson.

11:20 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Thank you, Minister. It's good to see you again.

You're right that we've been around this a few times. I have to tell you that I even leaned over to Tyler and said, “I'm running out of questions,” because we have gone around a lot of times.

I will reiterate, because it needs to be said, that the only thing on which I agree with my colleagues from the Conservative caucus is that the process was ham-fisted. There wasn't as much respect paid to this committee and the work we did as was promised in the election, and the name was chosen unilaterally. Those are all legitimate criticisms that the government has to wear.

However, I am in full alignment with the desire to make this so credible that the price to be paid by any political leader for not attending the leaders debate would be greater than any benefit from hiding and not having to be accountable and not facing scrutiny. I'm going to draw a very distinct line at criticizing the government on some of the missteps on the way to getting here. Those criticisms are not, in my opinion, enough to delegitimize the existence of the commission, particularly in the choice of Mr. Johnston. You had to go a long way to find a Canadian that no one could lay a glove on politically in any way, but you found him, and it matters.

I have to tell you that the inquisition-style questioning that was put upon Mr. Johnston from the official opposition was almost becoming a little embarrassing. He finally turned and said, in my paraphrased words, “You want assurances that this position is going to be filled with integrity? My name is on the line and my reputation is on the line. That's where the credibility is going to come from.”

You know what? For me, and I think for the overwhelming majority of Canadians, given Mr. Johnston's track record as a servant of Canada and as a servant of the public interest, that's good enough for me, as long as it's linked with public accountability at the end.

I did ask him about that, drilling down to make sure that the review was going to be as vigorous as it needs to be, and again I was satisfied. If I were returning to the next Parliament, which I am not, I would feel satisfied that I was going to have in front of me the analysis that I need to go back and determine whether we achieved the objectives in the way that we wanted, particularly in terms of accountability.

I could take more time asking questions, but I don't want to take away from joining with you in being surprised and pleased that we now have on record that the Conservatives believe that this is important and that it matters. Now what we need to do is make sure that there's so much credibility around this process that never again does a leader from any party dodge national debates when he or she wants to be the prime minister of this country.

If I have any time left, Minister, you're welcome to it to reinforce something, or we can just move on, but that was the most important thing. I don't have any questions now. I think the really important questions are going to come after the fact, when we review how well it worked and where we can make improvements.

Quite frankly, as a last thought, the proof of the pudding is going to be on the night of the debates. Are all the seats full? If they are, then we collectively, in the majority, were successful. If there's even one empty seat, then we failed. We've failed to create the political climate where you couldn't afford to pay that price. History is going to tell us the tale.

Thanks very much, Chair.

Thank you again, Minister.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

I will just say thank you, Mr. Christopherson, for those comments. I take the whole of them, both the critique and the support.

I think that's where going through this process will be important. Having that review at the end and having that accountability for what worked, what didn't, what we can do better, and how we can make this a long-term proposal are vitally and critically important.

I know that we both share a deep passion for public service and accountability, as well as for the importance of leaders debates as Canadians make up their minds as to who they want to be led by in the future.

Thank you for your comments.

11:25 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Thank you.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Just to reiterate, the minister is here because the committee asked her to be here. She didn't necessarily have to be here.

We'll go to Mr. Bittle.