Letter submitted to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on Bill C-520, an Act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament

Mr. Pat Martin
Standing Committee on Access
  to Information, Privacy and Ethics
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6

Dear Mr. Martin:

I am writing to you today in the context of your deliberation on Bill C-520, An Act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament. At the outset, I would like to say that I fully endorse the views expressed in the letter we jointly signed as agents of Parliament. I also endorse the messages in the submission from the Information Commissioner of Canada and in the presentations that you heard on February 25, 2014, from Marc Mayrand, Michael Ferguson and Mary Dawson. I am particularly concerned about the Bill’s apparent conflict with the Public Service Employment Act and the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector, its impact on the hiring process, the issues of procedural fairness, the lack of a definition of partisan conduct and the potential impact an examination of an employee’s conduct may have on investigations following an allegation of partisan activity.

On a personal note, my years as a journalist taught me the importance not only of fairness, but also of the appearance of fairness. Throughout my career, I covered governments of very different political stripes, and I am proud to have had a reputation for treating all of them fairly.

I have always had great respect for partisan activity as a form of public service. In many cases, people are drawn to partisan activity because they want to improve society. Many who have worked for a minister or a member of Parliament subsequently choose to join the public service. I have always considered this a positive move; some of Canada’s most distinguished deputy ministers first came to Ottawa as political aides. I am concerned this bill implies that partisan experience is something to be ashamed of—a liability rather than an asset. And it worries me that the provisions in the bill would discourage talented people who are committed to the ideal of linguistic duality from coming to work for the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

In his appearance before this committee, Mark Adler (York Center, CPC), the Bill’s sponsor, said that agents of Parliament “sit in judgment on members of Parliament.” In my case, that is not true. The Official Languages Act does not apply to parliamentarians.

I would say that the reverse is true; members of Parliament sit in judgment of me. They questioned me on my qualifications for the job before voting on my appointment and can summon me to appear, cross-examine me, criticize me and vote to have me dismissed. I report to you on whether federal institutions have lived up to their responsibilities under the Act.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, it is my job to ensure that my staff interprets the Official Languages Act in an appropriate fashion, neither too broadly nor too narrowly, but, as the Supreme Court has put it, in a generous, purposive fashion. I am responsible for striking the balance between laxity and zeal, and finding the most effective way to achieve results. As an agent of Parliament, I can be called upon at any time to justify the positions I have taken.

During the seven and a half years I have been carrying out this responsibility, partisanship has never been a factor in our work. There have been vigorous internal debates over many issues: whether or not a complaint is admissible, what recommendations would be most effective, and whether or not I should intervene in a court case, for example. I am proud of the dedication that my staff consistently demonstrates to their mandate. Those who work in the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages do so because they are committed to the principles embodied in the Act, and I witness that commitment every day. Not once have I felt that these internal debates were affected by partisan considerations; on the contrary, they were honest, candid exchanges of opinion on how the Act should be interpreted and applied, how I should meet my responsibilities as Commissioner, and how we could achieve positive results. Ultimately, the final decision on these questions is mine, and mine alone.

As a small organization, the Office of the Commissioner needs people with a wide variety of experience, whether in regional issues, investigations, policy, corporate services, legal work, communications or parliamentary affairs. Political experience, in my view, is an asset rather than a liability.

If a parliamentarian feels that my decisions have been, or appear to have been, affected by partisan considerations, then I would be happy to appear before your committee, or any other, to explain the reasoning behind them.

Thank you for your consideration of this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Graham Fraser

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