Government and Parliament Again Stand Off over Who Has the Power

May 27, 2010 Updated: May 27, 2010

PARLIAMENT HILL, Ottawa—The battle over access to information reached a fever pitch on Tuesday with MPs on the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics accusing each other of everything from opposition intimidation to government secrecy.

The dispute is the latest in an ongoing tug-of-war between opposition MPs and the government over parliamentary privilege and what rights Parliament and opposition MPs have to make demands on the government. In April, Speaker of the House, Peter Milliken, ruled in favour of opposition MPs who were demanding access to documents surrounding the Afghan-detainee controversy.

For a month now, the ethics committee has been calling witnesses for its investigation into allegations that the government is interfering with access to information requests.

On Tuesday, the scheduled appearance of Dimitri Soudas, Director Communications for the Prime Minister’s Office, sparked a fierce argument when Minister of Transport John Baird showed up in his stead on behalf of the prime minister.

Earlier that day, Jay Hill, the Government House Leader, announced that the government has instructed ministerial staffers not to appear when requested by committees. In explaining the decision, Mr. Hill said these staffers acted on behalf of ministers and that it should be the ministers themselves who appear.

“They bring to us many talents, and I expect for many of them, when they accepted their jobs, they never imagined that one of the skills required was to stand up to the interrogation of a bitterly partisan parliamentary committee,” said Mr. Hill.

But in the current matter before the committee, that responsible minister would be the prime minister who, according to tradition, is not called to testify before committees.

This left many of the opposition MPs, particularly Liberal MP and former solicitor general Wayne Easter, visibly upset.

In one of the most charged exchanges, Mr. Easter said Mr. Baird’s appearance before the committee represented the kind of “systematic political interference” the committee was investigating.

Mr. Baird countered that it was ministers who must be held accountable and that it was unfair for committees, which can often run roughshod over witnesses, to call political staffers to testify.

“We accept ministerial accountability. The days where you call in 25-year-old young people before this committee and beat up staff who can’t defend themselves are over, Mr. Easter. … If you have any questions about the matter that’s before the committee, I’m here and prepared to respond.”

Mr. Easter countered that Soudas is an experienced political hand, able to handle himself.

“He’s more of a spokesman than our ministers of the Crown. We see more of the PMO through Dimitri Soudas than we do of ministers that have ministerial responsibility in this government. If he can be the spokesman, don’t try to say he’s a 25-year-old being intimidated by this committee.”

“You’re affronting parliamentary democracy by your appearance here today when the committee has invited Dimitri Soudas,” accused Mr. Easter.

“I understand you’re making a mockery of Parliament,” countered Mr. Baird.

Mr. Baird never finished reading the one-page statement he had brought to committee after being interrupted by Liberal MP and committee chair Paul Szabo. Mr. Szabo objected to the content of Mr. Baird’s statement which focused on the issue of ministerial responsibility rather than access to information.

The committee spent the majority of its time debating two motions over whether to suspend Mr. Baird’s testimony, which it ultimately did. Speaking during the debate of the second motion, NDP MP Bill Siksay said there was no point continuing because Baird had none of the answers they were looking for from Mr. Soudas.

“It is very clear that the Minister of Transport has no direct supervisory responsibility for Mr. Soudas. I can’t imagine that he has knowledge of his day-to-day activities. I can’t even imagine that he’s been briefed about Mr. Soudas’ activities in any detail that would be helpful to this committee, and certainly he hasn’t provided any evidence that he is willing to do that or has been briefed on that,” Mr. Siksay said.

Mr. Siksay dismissed Mr. Baird’s suggestion that as a senior minister in the government, he shared a collective responsibility for all the government’s actions.

“I don’t know what the notion of collective responsibility is that the minister has mentioned this morning. It seems to me that ministers have specific responsibility for their departments, and I can’t believe we’re going to get into a situation where we can ask any minister any question about the conduct of any department. It seems we are going down a very strange path.”

After suspending Mr. Baird’s testimony, the committee granted Mr. Szabo the authority to issue a summons for any of the other listed witnesses if they refused an invitation before committee. Parliamentary committees have a level of authority not unlike a court of law, including the ability to issue subpoenas to compel reluctant witnesses to testify.

Mr. Siksay said he would introduce a motion in the next meeting of the committee to have a summons issued for Mr. Soudas.

Speaking to reporters later that day, Liberal MP Bob Rae said the tussle in committee was going to put the government back at odds with parliament over the rights of MPs.

"The government has created its own problem. The committee is supposed to be master of its own affairs. The speaker told us in his ruling at the end of April that the House could determine what documents it would see. The House can also determine which witnesses it will see. So once again, the government is setting us on a collision course."