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

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Chris Bittle Liberal St. Catharines, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Again, picking up on that point, I don't think we've ever put up a fight in terms of asking a minister to come. I think we work well as a committee, and when these requests have been made, I know Minister Gould has been here four times on this issue and many other times on many other issues. I don't understand the criticism at the beginning of Ms. Kusie's statement, but that said, I would like to build a little on what Mr. Christopherson said.

This is about what has happened over the last couple of months on this committee. Again, we work very well together, and there tends to be a very respectful tone in this committee, but when we had a series of witnesses, starting with the Clerk of the House, we saw the whip from the official opposition come down and question his integrity.

Then when we had the Chief Electoral Officer, who has been before this committee many times and has worked very well with this committee, Mr. Poilievre questioned his integrity, going so far as to suggest, in the absence of any evidence, that Elections Canada is a Liberal lapdog. He had no qualms about doing it and took delight in doing it, even correcting me when I got the quote wrong on his statement.

Then it went one step further.

Mr. Christopherson's comments described the integrity of David Johnston very well. Within Canada there are few individuals who have such unassailable credibility, and you would think they would be able to come before this committee. I agree with Mr. Christopherson that we can disagree on the process by which individuals were selected and how this commission came to be, and those are fair comments. The opposition is well within its rights in questioning the government on its role and its decisions and the difference between the recommendations of this committee and what actually happened, and it should be asking those questions. That's the type of debate I'm used to in this committee.

However, to then hear the opposition question the personal credibility of David Johnston to the extent that he had to stand up and defend himself by pointing to his own body of work is shocking.

Can you comment on that and your impression of...I would call him “Your Excellency”, but there's a rule that you have to put five dollars in the pot towards his charity. Can you comment on the credibility of David Johnston and your conversations that you have had so far?

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

Certainly.

First of all, I think it's a challenge when the credibility of very credible people is challenged, particularly when they are making it very clear that they are acting independently and that there has been no opportunity for interference or pressure. I believe we should take them at their word, particularly in the case of someone like Mr. Johnston, who has served Canadians for decades. He has made a career and a life of serving Canadians and has not been partisan in any way whatsoever.

This was someone who was appointed by Prime Minister Harper to be Governor General, and then we appointed him as the debates commissioner. He has been tremendous in being above partisanship and always thinking about the Canadian spirit.

That's a characteristic we were looking for when we were looking for the person who could manage what is a very political and very partisan issue. Really, since leaders debates have begun, they have been decided in back rooms. There has been political manoeuvring. Whoever was the leader of the day often had more say and authority in terms of when and where these debates would be held. We saw that in clear abundance in 2015, when the former prime minister basically dictated where, when, how and who would be participating in the debates.

That's why we were specifically looking for someone who could rise above all of that, someone Canadians could trust because they would know there would not be any inkling of partisanship, that this would not be political and would be purely about public service and serving the Canadian interest.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Chris Bittle Liberal St. Catharines, ON

Thank you.

Maybe I will ask more directly about the attack on the credibility of Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer.

I guess I look perhaps to our friends to the south and at attempts by politicians to score political points against institutions, especially independent institutions, that are involved in the democratic process. For me, it's troubling to see that happen here, to see it happen with delight from the opposition, and it worries me going into an election that in the absence of any evidence there is a gleeful willingness to attack the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada, which is one of the most respected electoral bodies in the world.

Can you comment on that as well?

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

Elections are based on two things in my opinion: trust in the process and trust in the outcome. In order to have those, you need to have trust in the impartial independent administrator of those elections. I believe that Elections Canada since its inception has been a shining example around the world of that impartiality and that independence.

It has administered the elections legislation created by this Parliament, and numerous parliaments before it, effectively and in a way that Canadians can have confidence and trust in. I think it is a particularly dangerous path to go down to flirt with questioning the independence, the integrity and the impartiality of our independent officers of Parliament.

Although on many sides we may not always agree with its findings or directions, the fact is that we have granted it that authority as Parliament and we need to respect it. We can disagree with it, but we should not question the motives behind it.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Chris Bittle Liberal St. Catharines, ON

I want to congratulate you on last night and your amazing ability to play the cowbell. That's a wonderful talent. Congratulations on that.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

That's one of my few talents, playing the cowbell.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you, Mr. Bittle.

Now to Ms. Kusie.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

The irony of this is that you've mentioned over and over again the character and integrity of the individual who was chosen, Mr. David Johnston. The sadness and the irony of this is that, if you had submitted to a fair and transparent process in an effort to choose him, you wouldn't have had the opportunity to question, not him, but the procedure of how he was chosen. I think that's truly a disservice to him. I find what we're discussing incredibly ironic. There's no doubt as to the integrity and the experience and the resumé of Mr. Johnston. It's the process, and that was your process. Really, it's your process that has created this unfortunate conversation.

I want to turn to the producer. It will be a producer organizing the debates rather than the commission, and it's likely to be a media consortium. Your government essentially created the debates commission and funded it with $5.5 million in a year where we have a fourth consecutive deficit, a year when the budget was supposed to be balanced, according to the Prime Minister. Yet how can we be sure that it will not be significantly different from previous debates that have been held, if there is in fact this consortium?

I see media in the room here today. I'm going to ask if you think it should be the role of the commission and thus the government, your government, to participate in your organization and broadcasting.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

On your first question with regard to the $5.5 million, it's important to note that this is a ceiling amount. That is an up-to amount. One of the important things we wanted to ensure was that the commission had sufficient resources to produce a debate that was of high quality, that reached journalistic standards, and that was available and accessible to Canadians.

Something we heard throughout the consultation process was that it was necessary to ensure that sufficient resources were made available. Additionally, it's also to ensure that the feed can also be public and free to anyone who wants to use it.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Was this because you didn't trust the media? Was it because you didn't think they were capable of doing something they've done for years?

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

No, that is absolutely not the case. In fact, I have reiterated on numerous occasions the very important role that media play in our democracy, particularly our traditional mainstream medium. We would not have this wonderful democracy we have without the incredible journalists across the country who hold governments to account.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Yet it would seem that you're trying to control them through the use of this commission.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

That is not the case at all. That may be your take on things, but this commission is created to ensure that these debates are widely available. The primary purpose of this, Ms. Kusie, as I have reiterated on countless occasions, is to ensure that the public interest is the primary driver behind all of this. It's to ensure that it is as widely disseminated as possible.

We saw in 2015 how one political leader was able to change, for political advantage, the nature of the debates, where they were disseminated, and where they were broadcast.

The fact of the matter is that Canadians have come to rely on leaders debates as an important political moment where they make decisions, where they look at their political leaders in spontaneous moments, where they get to see how they interact. They get to make decisions as to who they want to lead them.

May 16th, 2019 / 11:40 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

But if it's a producer and ultimately a consortium, aren't you concerned that smaller media organizations are likely to be left out?

There are so many smaller media organizations, platforms, and there is very much the possibility of them not being a part of this democratic process as a result of this motion.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

I would point you to the RFP that was released, and I would note that this was created by the commission.

The point, and what's in the order in council, is specifically to bring as many diverse participants in as possible. They're going to make that decision. The commissioner will make that decision, based on advice from the advisory council that he has put in place. It is specifically to ensure that this as accessible and inclusive a process as possible.

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

By controlling the process? That's ridiculous. That's completely unreasonable that you would allow for freedom of the media in developing a commission under the ministry—

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

Ms. Kusie, one thing that I would point to—

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

—which decides the producer, which decides the members of the consortium to implement the debates commission. It's completely contrary to—

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

If you'll allow me, in the order in council, it specifically encourages the debates commission and commissioner to work with partners across the country if they wish to hold other debates as well.

The commissioner is mandated to ensure that there is one debate in English and one debate in French. It is not by any means to limit the number of debates that are going on, but to support others who wish to engage in this process and to create some innovations in this process.

Going to the heart of your question, it is about accessibility, about inclusivity and it is about reaching those markets that have been underserved in the past.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you, Minister.

And thanks for welcoming the media, Althia Raj, etc.

Now we'll go to Ms. Sahota.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Ruby Sahota Liberal Brampton North, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

My first question is around the amount of funding that has been allocated.

What led you to decide that this amount—the ceiling amount or the actual amount that is now identified—would be appropriate, considering there are so many unknown variables to how these debates are going to occur?

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Karina Gould Liberal Burlington, ON

We wanted to ensure that we had sufficient resources to produce two high-quality debates in both official languages. It was also to ensure that there was sufficient remuneration for both the commissioner and also the technical secretariat that would be put in place. This would be an 18-month process, and it was to ensure that it was going to have sufficient resources. It's not only about producing the debates, but it's also about informing Canadians that these debates will be taking place as well. So it's to ensure that they have the resources to actually fulfill their mandate.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Ruby Sahota Liberal Brampton North, ON

What makes you think that this is enough?

11:40 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Corporate Services, Privy Council Office

Matthew Shea

We did our best analysis at the time that we did the funding proposal. We did err on the side of putting in more money. We put money in for professional services, knowing that they would want to have some type of contract in place to run the debates. They would need communication services. They would need personnel. They'd need back-office support.

We've done this before, as far as setting up independent organizations is concerned. We have recent experience with things like commissions of inquiry, so it gave us some sense of the types of costs. When you start a new organization, there are always start-up costs. That's one of the challenges with having a short-term organization.

I can't go into the spending from last year because the books aren't officially closed and public accounts are not released, but I feel comfortable saying that they will spend, and we will spend, less in the last fiscal year than was anticipated. In particular, the support from PCO in setting them up was much less than what we anticipated.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Ruby Sahota Liberal Brampton North, ON

Oh, really.