Watchdogs testify on bill to force disclosure of past partisan jobs

Three of Parliament's independent officers appeared before a committee studying Conservative MP Mark Adler's bid to force parliamentary agents and staff to declare past "partisan activity" when applying for jobs. Read a recap of our live blog.

Auditor general, Ethics Commissioner and Chief Electoral Officer appeared before House Ethics committee

Conservative MP Mark Adler (CBC)

A trio of parliamentary watchdogs appeared before the House Ethics committee Tuesday to share their perspectives on Conservative MP Mark Adler's bill to force agents of Parliament and their staff to publicly declare past political activity as part of a job application process.

During an hour-long session, Auditor General Michael Ferguson, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand made it clear that, while they had no objection to the principle behind the bill, they did have a few concerns over exactly how it would work.

"I would like to assure you that I and my employees are committed to carrying out our duties in a fair, independent and non-partisan manner," Ferguson said in his opening statement.

That said, Ferguson went on to outline several areas of the bill on which he and his fellow parliamentary officers were hoping to get some "clarification."

Partisan activities covered by Adler's bill would include ministerial staff gigs, riding association executive positions and part-time work for a political party, which would have to be disclosed by those seeking to serve in the office of a parliamentary agent even before they were hired.

This, according to Ferguson, could not only make some potential applicants "reluctant" to put their name forward, but could open the door to legal challengers under the existing public service employment rules.

"Under the current legislation, I appoint employees ... based on the merit principle."

Possible court challenges raised

Under the Adler bill, potential employees would be obliged to provide a declaration of past political activity as soon as possible, despite the fact that such information would not be permitted to influence the selection process.

An unsuccessful candidate, however, could challenge such a decision in court on the basis that his or her declaration influenced the hiring process.

Like Ferguson, Mayrand also raised concerns over "potentially discouraging" future applicants, and worried that such public disclosure could be a "serious infringement" on privacy rights.

He also reminded the committee that he is ultimately responsible for the conduct of his employees, and if there are any questions or concerns, he's the one who will appear before committee to answer for it.

Another provision in Adler's bill would oblige parliamentary officers and their staff to sign an undertaking vowing to "conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner," which could trigger a formal investigation if an MP or senator files a formal complaint.

All three watchdogs noted that their staff are already covered by fairly stringent values and ethics codes, which in some cases appear to be more restrictive than what Adler is proposing — such as, for instance, at the Office of the Ethics and Conflict of Interest Commissioner, where staff aren't even permitted to put up a political lawn sign.

In fact, Ferguson noted, the only political activity in which he is currently permitted to engage is casting a ballot, despite the fact that yet another section of Adler's bill seems to suggest he would be able to take a political job provided he gave notice at the earliest possible juncture.

Dawson said Adler's bill does not define what would constitute inappropriate conduct, nor does the bill establish a "clear threshold for launching an examination," or, for that matter, include any process to guarantee an employee the right to reply.

"It's a strange provision," she commented under questioning, but eventually demurred to answer further, noting, "it's not my bill."

Has support

Adler himself was given one hour to explain the rationale behind his private members' bill, which has already managed to garner the preliminary support of the government at second reading.

He reiterated his desire to bring more transparency to the political system, and wondered why the opposition parties seem so set against it.

"More information is better, more transparency is better and more accountability is better," he told his colleagues. "It's in the interest of everyone."

He was not, however, able to give a single example of past allegedly partisan conduct of the sort that his bill is ostensibly designed to root out.

The committee also received a letter signed by seven of the nine parliamentary officers who would be covered by the bill, including Ferguson and Mayrand, that lays out their concerns in more detail.

Here's the full text of that letter:

Read a recap of the hearing in our liveblog below:

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