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The West Block, right, on Parliament Hill as seen from the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick)
The West Block, right, on Parliament Hill as seen from the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick)

Evans, Shepherd, Stoney and Turnbull

Ottawa’s partisanship bill is uninformed and short-sighted Add to ...

This op-ed is supported by 25 academics, who are listed below

In a press conference held in February to introduce the Conservative government’s new Fair Elections Act, Minister for Democratic Reform, Pierre Poilievre, explained that “the referee should not be wearing a team jersey.” He wasn’t talking about hockey.

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In light of his varied and inconsistent comments, we can deduce that the “team” he was referring to is Elections Canada and the “referee” is the Elections Commissioner, the person charged with investigating violations and transgressions relating to elections. Currently, the commissioner is appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer, the head of Elections Canada, who reports to Parliament. But assuming the bill becomes law, the commissioner’s office will be removed from Elections Canada and the commissioner will be appointed instead by the director of public prosecutions, who reports to the government-of-the-day.

Mr. Poilievre’s suggestion that Elections Canada is a “team,” with interests and an agenda of its own, is not to be taken lightly. The mandate of Elections Canada is the fair and impartial administration of elections. The “team” metaphor is clearly irreconcilable with this mandate. In spite of there being absolutely no evidence to support the contention that any agents of Parliament or their staffs conduct their work except with the utmost professionalism and integrity, the not-so-subtle message from Mr. Poilievre seems to be that no institution or individual is above the fray of politics; everyone’s a partisan player.

“Yelling at the Ref” is far from a unique or new tactic for this government of course. In an astonishingly prescient article published almost two years ago, Dan Gardner (Ottawa Citizen) wrote, “Stephen Harper has impugned the professionalism and good faith of everyone from the RCMP to the Supreme Court of Canada, and he has done so when the stakes were relatively small. So how likely is it that he would respond to an unfavourable report from an agency [Elections Canada] he has long despised, on a matter that could imperil his government, by launching a vicious campaign to impugn the professionalism and good faith of that agency? The answer must be “very.” And if that happened, Mr. Gardner concluded, “it would be a disaster for the country”.

That same inference of “prejudicial bias” permeates a private member’s bill that Conservative MP Mark Adler introduced in January. Bill C-520 would require agents of Parliament, their employees and even those who merely apply to work in their offices, to disclose their political activities for the previous decade. It would require agents of Parliament and their staffs to disclose their intentions to engage in political conduct while acting in their capacity as agents of Parliament. As well, it would give MPs and Senators the power to request that agents of Parliament investigate their employees’ behavior to determine whether the employee in question had conducted her professional duties in a “partisan manner.”

Though this is a private member’s bill, and few of them ever receive Royal Assent, this one appears to have the support of the Prime Minister’s Office. The Toronto Star has reported that Prime Minister Harper’s director of communications, Jason MacDonald, has said as much and this drastically increases the likelihood that it will proceed into law.

Agents of parliament have already pointed out in front of the Parliamentary Ethics Committee that the bill is flawed. The provisions of this bill are not only completely unnecessary, they are out of step with existing provisions contained in Section 7, subsection 117 of the Public Service Employment Act. Deputy Heads, including agents of Parliament are already restricted greatly in what they can do politically. In fact, they are only permitted to vote – much stronger provisions than those of C-520. In addition, C-520 appears to allow agents and their staff to engage in political activities as long as they “disclose” their intentions to do so. No agent of Parliament or their staff would dream of partisan activity under the status quo, as this would completely undermine their legitimacy. The PSEA provisions, let alone guidelines under the 2010 Values and Ethics Code would give any agent or their staffs pause before engaging in partisan activities. If you ask agents whether they would sign a disclosure of political activity, we are certain they would be pleased to do so, as this would only reinforce current restrictive provisions under the PSEA.

Why is this bill thought to be necessary when existing provisions in the law are already so strong? What would this information be used for? How would it affect an individual’s prospects for employment? In our view, Adler’s bill smacks of a Canadian-styled McCarthyism. It would force the staff of agents of Parliament to reveal their political activities as a prerequisite to employment. The bill’s intent to allow investigations by political officials regarding “partisan” conduct on the job runs the real risk of turning the process into a “witch-hunt”. If MPs and Senators took advantage of the opportunity to request these investigations, they would effectively be slinging mud at agents of Parliament and tarnishing their legitimate status as non-political and independent overseers of the law, even if the allegations were baseless. Once the question of integrity and independence has been raised, there is no way to re-establish credibility. As former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page found, future outputs of the office in question will be interpreted as just one more political opinion rather than as an authoritative, objective view. Critical findings could be summarily dismissed. And to the extent that these offices’ perceived objectivity is undermined, their capacity to aid Parliament in holding the government to account is as well.

So, if the bill passes, who wins? The current government, perhaps, but this is a short-term advantage based on “drive-by smears” of respected public officials. Aside from being a slippery slope to undermine all agents of Parliament and their much needed work, the current government won’t be in charge forever. What goes around comes around in politics: a lesson this government seems unwilling or unable to learn.

Signed,

Nathalie Burlone, University of Ottawa; Linda Cardinal, University of Ottawa; Patrice Dutil, Ryerson University; Bryan Evans, Ryerson University; Isabelle Fortier, Ecole nationale administration publique (ENAP); Monica Gattinger, University of Ottawa; Dimitrios Karmis, University of Ottawa; Matthew Kerby, University of Ottawa; Karine Levasseur, University of Manitoba; Anne Mevellec, University of Ottawa; Martin Papillon, University of Ottawa; Jonathan Paquette, University of Ottawa; Ken Rasmussen, University of Regina; Ian Roberge, Glendon College at York University; Christian Rouillard, University of Ottawa; Andrea Rounce, University of Manitoba; Paul Saurette, University of Ottawa; Rob Shepherd, Carleton University; Louis Simard, University of Ottawa; Chris Stoney, Carleton University; Genevieve Tellier, University of Ottawa; Manon Tremblay, University of Ottawa; Luc Turgeon, University of Ottawa; Lori Turnbull, Dalhousie University; Jennifer Wallner, University of Ottawa

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