The NDP and the Liberals boycotted a Commons committee Wednesday that has been scrutinizing the CBC's approach towards access to information, opposing a Conservative bid to have the public broadcaster turn over internal documents.
The walk-out came on the same day the CBC celebrated its 75th anniversary, and held an annual public meeting where the topic of transparency was addressed.
The Conservatives called the access to information committee back for a special, closed-door meeting to deal with their motion to have the CBC produce records related to a number of access-to-information requests — including documents that it withheld.
The CBC has exemptions under the Access to Information Act for its journalistic, creative and programming activities, as well as its commercial records.
The Tory motion passed without the participation of the NDP and the Liberals during an in-camera meeting.
The opposition parties maintain that the motion would tread into the territory of the courts, which Parliament has traditionally tried to avoid. The CBC is in the midst of a dispute with the information commissioner at the Federal Court of Appeal over whether she has the power to review documents it has blocked from release.
“We believe the motion clearly oversteps the division of powers between the Legislative and Judicial branches of government,” the NDP said in a statement Wednesday.
“By compelling the production of documents directly related to a case now before the courts, (the Conservative) motion oversteps the role of this committee. It is improper for the committee to determine how to interpret legislation. This is clearly a function of the judiciary.”
The Conservatives, meanwhile, argue that they will not be able to properly review the issue without first seeing what the CBC has been releasing and withholding. The papers they requested relate to requests made by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and media outlets owned by Quebecor Inc. including Sun Media.
There are also constitutional issues embroiled in the committee's motion — freedom of the press is enshrined in the Charter and the CBC could argue it is not obliged to turn over journalistic material even to Parliament.
CBC President Hubert Lacroix said Wednesday evening that he had not yet received a request from the committee, but that the corporation was reviewing the issue. He noted that the Broadcasting Act ensures the independence of the public broadcaster by prohibiting government ministers from demanding documents.
“We're always interested in showing how transparent and accountable we are, making sure of the Acts and the protections that are given to a public broadcaster like ours and the independence from government, which is a sacrosanct principle,” said Mr. Lacroix. “We're going to see how we can make all of that fit.”
But the CBC might have a difficult time arguing against the release of certain documents. Last year, the Speaker of the House of Commons ruled on the right of Parliament to request any documents it needs.
The Liberals criticized the Conservatives for holding the discussion on the motion behind closed doors.
“This is a fundamental shift in the way Parliament works and an attempt to do an end run around the courts. (Conservative MP) Mr. Del Mastro wants to be judge, jury and the Information commissioner all wrapped in one,” said Liberal MP Scott Andrews.
“Canadians do not support this unprecedented attack on the CBC. It is unacceptable to turn the lights off on proceedings to avoid scrutiny.”
The Liberals and the NDP are asking for a legal opinion from parliamentary law clerk Rob Walsh.
The CBC's 75th anniversary passed with only the NDP marking the occasion in the House of Commons. The corporation, at first called the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corp., was founded by Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.
The Conservatives have been sharply critical of the CBC's record on access to information, which the information commissioner has highlighted in her yearly reports.
The CBC has turned in proposals for a five per cent and 10 per cent budget cut, like all other government departments and agencies, but it is not clear what the government will require of the crown.
Meanwhile, the Conservative party recently surveyed its members on whether the CBC is good or bad value. The National Citizens Coalition has a petition to defund the CBC, while the Liberal party has its own to protect the corporation.
Heritage Minister James Moore told the Commons Wednesday that the government is “demanding accountability at the CBC.”
CBC chairman Timothy Casgrain, an appointee of the Conservative government, told the institution's annual public meeting in Ottawa that Canadians need to speak up if they value the public broadcaster.
“Go speak to your MPs, go speak to your ministers. There's only so much we can do as CBC management and the board,” said Mr. Casgrain.
“We need you, the listeners, the viewers, to step up in our 75th year and get in touch with your MP and say you need to protect the organization. This is a treasure and we will not know until its gone, when we wake up to the fact that we don't have the linkage that binds us together.”