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.