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Dear Ryan: Dismantling democratic safeguards through Bill C-520

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Artwork: Linda Leon

Ryan Leef, Member of Parliament for Yukon

Dear Ryan,

Thank you for working on a private member's bill to require situation-appropriate sentencing and treatment for those suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD) who run afoul of the law. This is a worthy project.

Another private member's bill, C-520, Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act, introduced by MP Mark Adler, has not received the attention it deserves. This act addresses the activities of Agents of Parliament and, once it receives Royal Assent, will pertain to the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Privacy Commissioner, the Information Commissioner, the Senate Ethics Officer, the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Ministerial staff and Parliamentary Staff.

The Act requires that these agents and staff declare any past political activities, future plans for political activities and that they act in a non-partisan manner. Section 9, called The Examination of Alleged Partisan Conduct states that "On written request to the office of an agent of Parliament by any member of the Senate or House of Commons that alleges that a person who occupies a position in that office has conducted their duties and responsibilities in a partisan manner, the agent of Parliament may examine the matter and take such steps as they consider necessary."

Public servants are already required to behave in a non-political manner. So why does it need to be stated again? Is there something missing from current legislation or is this an attempt to make bogeymen out of public servants? 

What does "partisan manner" mean? Every other term in this bill is explicitly defined. Why leave "partisan" open to interpretation if not to invite witch hunts?

Conservative Party members began labelling all sorts of people as "partisan" as far back as 2006. The press, civil servants, scholars, experts and, not surprisingly, various agents of Parliament who stubbornly maintained professional standards in spite of being harassed, were and continue to be slandered this way. If Dean Del Mastro is charged with breaking several laws around campaign expenses, it could only be because the Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, is "wearing a team jersey." It couldn't possibly be because Del Mastro committed crimes.

From the Conservative perspective there is an army of malcontents in various government departments who have nothing better to do than persecute innocent Conservatives. What a story!

"Partisan" is also a word attributed to anyone who makes impartial but inconvenient observations, who naively provides evidence-based advice and who speaks "off message." It especially describes someone who has held Conservatives accountable for legitimately identified errors as has former Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page.

This raises another question. Who is allowed to behave in a partisan manner? Jenni Byrne is the co-deputy Chief of Staff for the Prime Minister's Office. Her salary is paid for by the public. She e-mails partisan hate ad/fundraising letters on behalf of the Conservative Party to supporters. I happen to know this because she used to send poison pen letters to me. The e-mails were sent during business hours. 

Under the Westminster parliamentary system, government watch dogs are stand-alone in order to prevent political interference. Bill C-520 will remove the independence of these public agents. The Conservative argument is that the agents should not be independent. It presumes that members of Parliament and the Senate are above bias and should be the ones watching the shop. According to this argument, the fox should guard the hen house because the chickens are untrustworthy.

The Prime Minister's Office has said that Bill C-520 reflects the Conservatives "principles of transparency and accountability." This is from a government that was charged with contempt of Parliament over its refusal to disclose information on the Afghan detainees and the cost of its crime policy! Just how stupid do Conservatives think Canadians are?

Bill C-520 is a partner document of the Unfair Elections Act. Both bills seek to muzzle public servants, dismantle democratic safeguards and give free rein to the unscrupulous. Neither was written with the public good in mind.

That is why I like your private member's bill on FASD. It puts your expertise to good use on behalf of the public. But, expertise has been trumped by what is called "common sense" in Conservative vernacular. Your bill is unlikely to pass. Hopefully, once the Harper regime has died, your bill will be revisited. The idea has real merit.

A government that has to cheat, lie and stack the deck in order to maintain power is, by these very actions, unworthy.


Linda Leon

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