Statement made on 23 June 2009 by Senator Joan Fraser
Hon. Joan Fraser:
Honourable senators, I would like to congratulate the chair of the Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament. Under the circumstances, this study could have become very partisan. Committee members could easily have succumbed to the kind of partisan divisions and battles we have witnessed elsewhere. The committee members avoided such behaviour. All committee members upheld the committee's serious, non-partisan tradition, but the chair always takes the lead, and I am sure that we are all grateful for the tone he set.
When Senator Oliver spoke to this report last week, he gave an interesting and instructive introductory lesson on parliamentary privilege. I commend it to the reading of all honourable senators who were not fortunate enough to hear it. He also rehearsed the events that had led to this work by the committee. Then he mentioned the fact that we had heard from Laurent Marcoux, who was at that time — and I think still is — Acting Director General of Operations, Communications and Consultations at the Privy Council Office.
Then I am not sure what happened. I think Senator Oliver ran out of time, because he did not describe what the committee had found. I wanted to discuss that subject ever so slightly before urging honourable senators to adopt the report.
I stress that the committee did not engage in a search for blame. It did not blame Mr. Marcoux, although he, as head of the department, fittingly accepted ultimate responsibility for the erroneous statement that appeared on the Government of Canada website.
However, as far as I can determine, there was no appetite at all in the committee to go on a lovely witch hunt and find someone, high or low, to hold responsible for this event. I think the concern was much more for the preservation of not only the privileges but the general respect of the Senate in which we all believe.
The committee was satisfied — and notes in its report that it was satisfied — with Mr. Marcoux's assurances that such an event is unlikely to recur, and that steps have been taken to ensure that it does not recur, including, interestingly, a learning plan which will include a course module on the role of the Senate. I think that would be useful not only for people in the Privy Council Office, but throughout the bureaucracy — and who knows, maybe even in the House of Commons.
The committee also said, however, that it was deeply regrettable that the inaccurate information remained on the government website for more than two weeks, even though it could have been removed earlier. It noted, again with regret, that no notice of correction or apology was posted to explain the error when it was, at last, removed. The committee went on to say:
Even more troubling, however, is that the statement from the actionplan.gc.ca website was not just inaccurate; it was also an affront to the Senate. . . . The statement that "Senators must do their part and ensure quick passage of this vital legislation" is at odds with the autonomy and independence of the Senate. The Senate cannot be coerced to adopt a legislative proposal or to adopt it in a given timeframe. In addition, this partisan rhetoric on a Government of Canada website put the public service into an untenable position where its non-partisanship, political neutrality and impartiality are placed in jeopardy.
Your committee finds this unacceptable terminology offensive to the authority, dignity and privileges of the Senate. . . .
I thought it was important for all senators who may not have read the report to realize that those were the findings, unanimously adopted, of the committee.
The committee went on to make a few very simple recommendations that I think are constructive and in no way offensive to anyone. We recommended:
1. That a comprehensive review of the . . . website be undertaken with the view to remove not only factual errors, but also any statement that might affect the non-partisanship, political neutrality and impartiality of the public service;
2. That the Clerk of the Privy Council take every step necessary to convey to all responsible managers:
(a) the non-partisanship, political neutrality and impartiality of the public service; and
(b) the institutional role of the Senate.
As I suggested, the Privy Council Office is already, apparently, taking in hand the need to instruct people about the institutional role of the Senate, which is good.
Finally, we recommended:
3. That the conclusions learned in this matter be communicated strongly to all responsible managers of Government of Canada websites.
Honourable senators, in my view, this report was a firm but fair statement to which all senators could reasonably subscribe. The recommendations were also fair and not in any way part of a partisan or witch-hunting game. I would urge honourable senators to adopt this report.