A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
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Sunday, February 19, 2012

A matter of Privilege.

“It’s becoming increasingly evident that the Harper Conservatives dislike public accountability,” said Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party.  “They are already limiting debate in the House on a regular basis, and now they intend to make committee business secret.
“With their majority muscle, the Conservatives can already pass whatever they want in committees. They are running roughshod over past practice and doing away with any pretence of democracy.”
Just a few weeks into the new session two committees have considered motions to hold their meetings “in camera” this effectively bars the press and the public from any information as to the proceeding that take place in those meeting. Indeed it also restricts those who participate in said meetings from revealing anything about said proceedings, including opposition motions and the results of vote on such motions. In short the Conservative dominated committees can not only force through flawed legislation at the committee stage but, by making said meeting 'in camera' using their majority in the committees, completely suppress any concerns or discussion regarding the topic at hand from public view. This is clearly undemocratic, unnecessary and yet one more step by the Harper regime to suppress ALL those who disagree with their ideological agenda. Remember these are the guys that wrote the book on how to disrupt committee meetings if thing were not going their way. We note that this is as Ms May says “ Widely considered as a test run for all committees” , open and accountable government eh!

The following gives some background as to In Camera Meetings:-
On occasion, a committee may decide to hold an in camera meeting to deal with administrative matters, to consider a draft report or to receive a briefing. Subcommittees on Agenda and Procedure usually meet in camera. Committees also meet in camera to deal with documents or matters requiring confidentiality, such as national security. Depending on the needs, a committee may conduct one part of a meeting in public and the other part in camera.
Neither the public nor the media is permitted at in camera meetings, and there is no broadcasting of the proceedings. Usually, only the committee members, the committee staff and invited witnesses, if any, attend in camera meetings.
Transcripts of In Camera Meetings
While no public transcript (Evidence) is produced of what is said during in camera proceedings, committees generally decide to have a transcript produced for the private consultation of committee members and staff. The transcript is retained by the clerk of the committee. Committees must also decide how such transcripts will be disposed of at the end of the session, that is whether they will be destroyed or made part of the permanent record for historical purposes.

Divulging any part of the proceedings of an in camera committee meeting has been ruled by the Speaker to constitute a prima facie matter of privilege.”

Given that there may be much that the Conservative members are trying to hide from the public via this antidemocratic move from going in camera 'on occasion' to as a matter of routine, I wondered what penalties there were should an opposition MP decide that the machinations of the conservative members behind these closed doors warranted breaking Parliamentary Privilege. Its not clear what those penalties could be but it is clear that to bring charges of breaching parliamentary privilege forward is a complex and lengthy process and that said allegations must be brought before the house and debated in open session.

Here is some information on that aspect:-
Any claim that a privilege has been infringed upon or a contempt committed must be brought to the attention of the House at the earliest opportunity. Once the Speaker recognizes a Member on a matter of privilege, the Member must briefly outline the complaint, following which the Speaker may choose to hear from other Members prior to deciding if there is a prima facie case of privilege (i.e., whether the matter appears to warrant priority or consideration).
If the Speaker finds there is a prima facie breach of privilege, the Member raising the question of privilege is asked to move a motion, usually requesting that the matter be examined by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. If there is a favourable vote in the House on the motion (which can be debated), the matter is examined by the Standing Committee, which may choose to call expert witnesses. The Committee's report of findings and recommendations is presented to the House, and a motion to concur in, or agree to the report, may then be moved.

Since the House has not given its committees the power to punish any misconduct, breach of privilege, or contempt directly, committees cannot decide such matters; they can only report them to the House. Only the House can decide if an offence has been committed. Speakers have consistently ruled that, except in the most extreme situations, they will only hear questions of privilege arising from committee proceedings upon presentation of a report from the committee which directly deals with the matter and not as a question of privilege raised by an individual Member. As Speaker Milliken indicated in response to a question of privilege raised in 2003 concerning the disclosure of a confidential draft committee report: “In the absence of a report from the committee on such an issue, it is virtually impossible for the Chair to make any judgement as to the prima facie occurrence of a breach of privilege with regard to such charges”.

In short if someone was to report to the public a egregious action by conservative (or for that matter any) committee member from an 'in camera' meeting the matter would require a public complaint to the speaker, a debate in the house and probably be refereed to committee. This could be declared 'in camera' (Subcommittees on Agenda and Procedure usually meet in camera) but at that point what would the member breaching privilege have to loose by revealing the proceedings and would the committee dare do such a thing after all the public debate on such matters? Even after all this procedure and debate the member could then could be just given a slap on the wrist by the Speaker! Seems to me we need a few opposition members with some guts to push the envelope, that is after all what the Conservative have been doing with the rules for some time now, and totally getting away with it. Also I do not see how a member could be construed as breaking privilege by revealing what did NOT happen, little things like open debate, due consideration of amendments etc etc? With the PMO controlling everything, the conservative MPs, department heads, scientists and various bureaucrats say, now its sights are on opposition MPs. Do we now need 'whistle blower protection' for MPs and their staff in order for them to talk publicly about their work?

Seems 'they' can view our private information without warrant and that’s ok but we cannot even know what our MPs are discussing in committee. Whats wrong with this picture and when will the attacks upon our democracy stop?

A special tip of the hat this week to all who have spoken out against bill C-30 there is little I can say that has not already been said.

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