Ottawa Citizen

Tories muzzle bureaucrat­s: opposition

Senior officials cancel meeting with committee at last minute

- BY KATHRYN MAY

A showdown is looming between the Harper government and a parliament­ary committee over the “ muzzling” of bureaucrat­s who suddenly cancelled plans to testify at hearings into the Conservati­ves’ $ 1 billion in spending cuts to programs for jobless youth, aboriginal­s, the illiterate and others needing social assistance.

Opposition MPs passed a motion yesterday to summon bureaucrat­s from the three department­s after they snubbed the Commons government operations committee’s request that they appear as witnesses to answer MPs’ questions on the impact of the cuts and how programs were selected for the chopping block.

The committee, which has sweeping powers to summon witnesses and documents, called bureaucrat­s from Treasury Board, Public Works and Government Services and Human Resources and Social Developmen­t to testify yesterday. Late Monday, each department sent word their bureaucrat­s wouldn’t be attending.

The opposition jumped on the bureaucrat­s’ no- show as evidence the Harper government is extending its iron grip on communicat­ions to Canada’s impartial and non- partisan public service. They argued it’s too much of “ coincidenc­e” for bureaucrat­s from three department­s to back out unless they were instructed not to go.

“ We can only interpret ( this) as the Harper government’s attempt to muzzle the non- partisan public service by ordering them not to appear,” said Liberal MP Navdeep Singh Bains.

“ First the government muzzles its cabinet, then it muzzles its caucus and now this minority Conservati­ve government has pushed its agenda of secrecy and unaccounta­bility to a new low by censoring non- partisan government officials from testifying before a parliament­ary committee.”

Opposition MPs also seized on the snub as another blow for a government elected on promises of openness and accountabi­lity in government, as well as expanding the role of MPs and committees.

The department­s offered different reasons for cancelling their appearance. Treasury Board officials withdrew because the ground was covered when President John Baird testified last week.

Public Works officials demurred until they appeared with Public Works Minister Michael Fortier at the end of November to discuss the department’s procuremen­t. Human Resources officials said they couldn’t make it because they were busy preparing the minister, Diane Findlay, for other committee meetings.

The motion to hold hearings into the cuts, which affected a range of social programs, was originally approved by all parties, but the Conservati­ves changed their minds after Mr. Baird testified last week. The Liberals argued they learned little about the cuts and their impact during Mr. Baird’s testimony which they described as “ evasive, argumentat­ive, hostile and hotly partisan.”

But Mr. Baird said the flap is nothing more than “ mischiefma­king.” He said he and his top bureaucrat­s had already testified last week and he had no idea the committee had asked the bureaucrat­s to come back until the furore erupted.

Errol Mendes, a constituti­onal expert at the University of Ottawa, said the confrontat­ion sends the signal that the Harper government is in “ full damage control” over the $ 1- billion cuts.

“ They wouldn’t want the bureaucrat­s saying these cuts weren’t our choice because the government would have to hold ideologica­l baggage of the cuts. Bureaucrat­s would be very uncomforta­ble with this,” said Mr. Mendes.

It’s not unusual for bureaucrat­s to decline a committee’s request because of conflictin­g or busy schedules, but a refusal is like waving a red flag in front of MPs who historical­ly dig in their heels when witnesses refuse to testify and exert their subpoena power to compel them to appear.

Bureaucrat­s must attend when summoned. If they don’t, the committee could decide to recommend the House of Commons find them “ in contempt” of Parliament. Bureaucrat­s can refuse to answer questions if they feel they are treading into policy matters. Former privacy commission­er George Radwanski was the last bureaucrat the government operations committee summoned to testify.

Political scientist Donald Savoie said public servants appear on the authority of their ministers and appearance­s at committee are usually discussed with their political bosses.

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