Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On pushback

With nearly all of the attention paid to the House of Commons focusing on question period, it seems like there's some rather important information that's falling through the cracks. So let's take some time to note what happened yesterday on one of the Cons' posturing-on-crime bills - and what it figures to mean going forward.

Here's the background to a motion presented by NDP MP Joe Comartin:
Following my own and the Bloc's representations on the justice committee, we had arranged for the head of the Correctional Service of Canada to appear before the committee, because we were told by Juristat and the office of the Minister of Justice that correctional service staff were the only ones who could answer factually some of the questions we had raised.

We arranged for Mr. Don Head to appear before the committee. He came before the committee without anything prepared and took questions, including a series of questions from me and the member from the Bloc. In the course of that questioning, it became clear that the information was not compiled in any way. For instance, he could not tell us how many victims' families had asked to make a victim's statement and he could not tell us the specifics of the recidivism rate. He only had generalities that he could talk a bit about to us. He could not tell us at what ages most people were convicted and most individuals got out of prison.

We could go down the list. There were at least a half dozen very specific points that he confirmed the Correctional Service of Canada could give us answers on. He said to me and the member from the Bloc and the chair of the committee that the information could and would be available by the time we got to clause by clause consideration of the bill, scheduled for November 16. Mr. Head appeared before the committee on November 4. It was very clear that he could do it in that period of time.

The week of November 9 was a break week for the House to commemorate Remembrance Day in our ridings, but we were back on November 16. I asked where the information from the Correctional Service of Canada was so that we could do clause by clause in a meaningful way. I was told it had been sent to our offices.

I have subsequently learned that other members of the committee, both from the Bloc and the Liberal Party, with similar questions about where it was were told the same thing.
We all jumped to the conclusion that somehow we had missed that information in our offices, and so we went ahead with clause by clause. The bill went through committee stage and, of course, it is now back in the House for report stage and third reading.

After November 16, I again told the clerk that I did not have the information in my office and asked if it could be sent to my office again. Yesterday morning when I arrived at my office, it was not there. We called again at that point and were advised that in fact it had never been sent either to my office or to anyone on the committee, because it had been sent to the office of the Minister of Public Safety and that it had at least been there by November 16.

That information was never provided to the committee. The committee went ahead with clause by clause without all of that factual information, which was our only source of such information.

Yesterday, I was advised by the Conservative deputy House leader that in fact the minister had that information on his desk and had not seen or approved it. I have to say as a sidebar that he has no right to approve it; this is not a situation where he gets to vet that information. If committees are going to work in the House, they must have access to information without it being censored, deleted or affected in any other way by the decisions of the political masters in our legislature.

I still do not have the information. I had wanted it yesterday, as I had expected to speak on this bill then and to use some of data to try to convince the House to vote against this bill. I still do not have it. I was advised by the Conservative deputy House leader yesterday that I might get it in another week.

We know that if that happens, this bill is going to come to a vote before we ever get the information, and I am certainly not going to be able to use it today in my arguments for why we should defeat this bill. The minister should not have done that.
Of course, the theme of Con secrecy (with its variations related to timing the disclosure of documents after it's too late for them to matter, the civil service being co-opted for Con political strategies, and Cons interposing themselves between the public service and others entitled to information) is a fairly familiar one. But this looks like a fairly striking example which manages to have gone entirely unreported.

Which is particularly a shame since the opposition parties appear to have come up with an effective countermove. Comartin presented a motion to deal with the Cons' bill on the faint hope clause:
I move that:

Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Criminal Code, be not now read a third time but be referred back to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights for the purpose of reconsidering Clauses 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 with a view to making any amendments which may be called for as a result of information undertaken to be placed before the Committee by departmental officials on November 4th, but which the office of the Minister of Public Safety failed to provide before the Committee considered the Bill at clause-by-clause.
Comartin's motion is set to be voted on today. And assuming the opposition parties all support it, it would seem to be at least a start in sending a message that the Cons can't simply delay and deny their way out of proper debate on their policies.

No comments:

Post a Comment