Justin Trudeau bill would open up secretive Board of Internal Economy

Just hours after the all-party Board of Internal Economy went behind closed doors to discuss sexual harassment complaints lodged against two Liberal MPs, Justin Trudeau got his first chance to promote his bid to hold future board meetings in public. Kady O'Malley looks at the bill's chances.

Liberal leader presents private member's bill Tuesday night

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will get a chance Tuesday to debate his private member's bill to open up meetings of the House of Commons' Board of Internal Economy. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Just hours after the all-party Board of Internal Economy went behind closed doors to discuss sexual harassment complaints lodged against two Liberal MPs, Justin Trudeau got his first chance to promote his bid to hold future board meetings in public.

The Liberal leader presented his private member's bill to the House Tuesday night. 

It would require board members to meet in public unless they intend to deal with specific issues requiring confidentiality, such as "security, employment, staff relations or tenders," according to the draft text.

Trudeau's bill would also let the board meet in private with the unanimous consent of all members.

Currently, even the dates and times of scheduled meetings are secret and the meeting room is located in an area of Centre Block off-limits to media.

That hasn't stopped Hill reporters from attempting to cover the proceedings when they land in the middle of a high-profile political controversy, however.

Earlier this year, the board came under fire from its own NDP members after rejecting their call to open up its probe of the party's allegedly improper use of House resources to pay for out-of-town satellite offices and mailings.

More recently, the board has found itself under increasing pressure to look into harassment on the Hill.

Confidentiality concerns

Liberal whip Judy Foote has formally asked House Speaker Andrew Scheer, who heads up the board, to handle the details of any future outside investigation into the allegations against MPs Scott Andrews, from Newfoundland and Labrador, and Massimo Pacetti, from Quebec. The MPs have been suspended from the Liberal caucus until the matter has been resolved.

Last week, New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair sent a letter to his Conservative and Liberal counterparts that calls for a more comprehensive approach, including a formal code of conduct, as well as a new officer of Parliament to investigate complaints and a fully confidential process.

Speaking with CBC News on Monday night, Liberal spokeswoman Kate Purchase said there's no conflict between Trudeau's proposal for a more transparent board and the need to keep sensitive matters — such as harassment complaints — private.

"The goal of [Trudeau's bill] is to make the [board] open by default, but of course, in instances where sensitive, personal matters are being discussed, the board would continue to have the ability to go in camera," she told CBC News.

She also pointed out that the Liberals don't want the board itself to investigate the complaints against Andrews and Pacetti, but to "bring in a third-party, neutral investigator."  

'A good idea is a good idea': NDP

Meanwhile, despite some lingering anger over how Trudeau dealt with the harassment complaints — specifically, his decision to go public with the suspensions without giving notice to the still unnamed complainants  — NDP MPs are expected to support sending his bill to committee when it goes to a vote, which will likely happen early next year.

"We’ll support it," caucus spokeswoman Greta Levy told CBC News.

"Opening up the [board] has been our policy for years now, and I think we appropriately congratulated Mr. Trudeau for adopting our idea a few months ago."

Levy noted that her party had tried to garner the necessary consent for an earlier motion to do the same.

"But a good idea is a good idea," she said.

As for the potentially thorny issue of confidentiality, she pointed out that making meetings transparent by default "does not in any way preclude them being held in camera for good reason."

Trudeau's bill would also update Canada's Access to Information regime to make government data and records "openly available to the public and accessible in machine-readable formats."

Under the new wording proposed by Trudeau, "necessary exceptions" to the rule should be "rare."

His bill would also give the information commissioner the power to order the release of information if she believes it should be accessible under the law.

On Tuesday night, Treasury Board parliamentary secretary Dan Albas informed the House that the government would not be supporting the bill.

That means cabinet members and parliamentary secretaries will be obliged to vote against it.

Barring a whipped vote, however, the rest of the Conservative caucus will be permitted to vote as they see fit — and if a sufficient number of independent-minded backbenchers decide to support the bill, it could end up at committee after all. 

About the Author

Kady O'Malley

Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.


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