Tory MP’s bill unnecessary, could harm independence, say Parliament’s watchdogs

Parliament’s watchdogs have urged a Senate committee to quash a proposal to publish the political backgrounds of their employees, calling it unnecessary and potentially harmful to the independence of their offices.

OTTAWA — Parliament’s watchdogs have urged a Senate committee to quash a proposal to publish the political backgrounds of their employees, calling it unnecessary and potentially harmful to the independence of their offices.

Some Conservative senators also voiced reservations about Toronto-area Conservative MP Mark Adler’s private member’s bill, C-520.

The proposed legislation would require all employees of the various agents of Parliament to publicly disclose any political jobs held over the previous decade. Job seekers would also have to file a declaration during the hiring process.

The public disclosures — by everyone from senior managers to junior staff — would be posted to the Internet. The actual agents of Parliament, such as the auditor general and the chief electoral officer, would not be covered.

Seven of the parliamentary agents sent a letter Tuesday expressing their reservations with the bill. They sent a similar letter to the Commons committee that examined and amended the bill last year.

They noted that the bill requires them to collect information about the political past of prospective employees, but doesn’t indicate what the agents are supposed to do with it. Currently, hiring in the public service is based on merit alone.

The agents also worry about the privacy of employees and the chilling effect they say the bill could have.

“It also subjects the employees to unwarranted public scrutiny and risks hindering the independence and execution of the mandates of the agents of Parliament,” they wrote.

“Individuals who would otherwise be interested in applying for a position in the office of an agent may be discouraged from applying in light of the disclosure of their personal information.”

In a separate letter, the president and two commissioners of the Public Service Commission of Canada noted that public servants are already subject to rules on political activity under the Public Service Employment Act and the government’s ethics code.

Conservative Sen. Diane Bellemare said she worried that some Canadians might not want to participate in the political process because of the scrutiny they would later face. Colleague Michel Rivard raised the fact the bill had not been reviewed for constitutionality.

A 1991 Supreme Court of Canada decision struck down an absolute ban on the political activities of public servants, emphasizing the different levels of responsibility bureaucrats might have and the range of political activities that exist.

Adler appeared before the committee of Tuesday and told the senators that the bill aims to prevent potential conflicts of interest. It will subject the public servants to “the highest standards of accountability,’ he said.

“As the agents and their employees are tasked with oversight of parliamentarians, it is in Canada’s best interest to shine a light on potential conflicts of interest in the preparation of reports,” he added.

“Transparent disclosure will help ensure that even-handedness and neutrality are always applied. This bill speaks to the fact that access to information is a public good.”

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