Backing down — and lovin’ it!

In Question Period today, Peter Van Loan sure sounded surprised to learn that, as ITQ first reported yesterday, Officers of Parliament — Privacy, Official Languages, Auditor General, Information and probably one or two I haven’t remembered — expected their communications to be vetted by Harper-loyal Langevin Bloc gnomes before release to the public.

Hon. Peter Van Loan (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform, CPC): Mr. Speaker, that is in fact not at all the case. The policy in question applies to government departments, not to the independent agents of Parliament, regardless of what those independent agents may conclude, and this government has no intention of requiring those independent agents of Parliament to vet their communications through the government in any way.

Well what on earth could have put that notion into the Officers of Parliaments’ heads? Perhaps the fact that one of them, Graham Fraser, the Official Languages Commissioner, wrote on behalf of all the Officers to the Secretary of the Treasury Board, Wayne Wouters, three months ago to complain. The text of Fraser’s letter (note the long cc list at the bottom):

Mr. Wayne Wouters
Secretary to the Treasury Board
Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
L’Esplanade Laurier, 9th Floor, East Tower
140 O’Connor Street
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0G5

Dear Mr. Wouters:

I am writing on behalf of the Officers of Parliament concerning the proposed draft Policy on Government of Canada Communications which was sent to us for comments.

After reviewing the Policy we have concluded that a number of its requirements compromise our ability to carry out our mandates and, therefore, does not apply to Officers of Parliament.

Ensuring that we have our own voice is key to us fulfilling our mandates as well as to the public’s understanding of both our specific roles and our independence. As the proposed Policy on Government of Canada Communications does not recognize the independent status of Officers of Parliament, it can not apply to our organizations.

Related to the broader issue of the application of Treasury Board policies to Officers of Parliament, on December 18th 2007 the Speaker of the House of Commons sent a letter to the President of Treasury Board indicating his support for our intention to pursue this matter at the earliest convenience.

Yours sincerely,

Graham Fraser

c.c.: Honourable Peter Milliken, the Speaker of the House of Commons
Office of the Auditor General of Canada
Office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada
Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada
Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
Office of Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada

Here’s a timeline of the file, verbatim from Robin Cantin, spokesperson for Graham Fraser. Note that when the timeline ends, the Officers of Parliament have still not been given a conclusive answer from anyone in Canada’s New Government.

October, 2007 – Agents of parliament receive a draft copy of the proposed new Communication Policy. Staff at the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages start red-flagging some issues about independence and get to work with other Agents of Parliament on an analysis.

November, 2007 – Sheila Fraser writes to House Speaker Milliken about Communication policy (but also other policies), asking to relay to TB President Vic Toews. In December, Mr. Milliken obliges, adding his support.

January, 2008 – Graham Fraser to Treasury Board’s Secretary Wayne Wouters: Proposed Communications Policy doesn’t recognize independence of Agents of parliaments. Please advise.

Jan/Feb, 2008 – Treasury Board signal they are receptive and will work on it.

So the Officers of Parliament had signalled their concerns to the government in December. And they didn’t get a clear answer until today. Which sort of makes one suspect that the government had every intention of vetting Officers of Parliament’s communications until they got spooked by Sheila Fraser.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.