Inside Politics

CASE CLOSED: Speaker exonerates Clement over claims he tweaked transcript of his committee transcript

Courtesy of his unfailingly helpful staff, here's the full text of House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer's ruling on the point of privilege raised by Treasury Board President Tony Clement, which he raised last week in response to an accusation by the NDP that he had deliberately edited the record of his G8-related committee appearance in order to remove his ostensible agreement to voluntarily table certain documents. 

As always, it's worth reading the whole thing, but if you're pressed for time, here's the short version: After investigating the matter, Scheer was able to declare -- categorically, even --  that "no Members or Members' staff submitted proposed changes to the transcript," and that those changes that were made "were the result of normal editing protocols being followed." He did not, however, find that the initial allegation constituted a prima facie breach of Clement's privilege as a parliamentarian. (Not surprisingly -- nor, for that matter, unreasonably -- Clement still demanded an apology from NDP MP Charlie Angus, which had not yet been delivered at press time.) 

In any case, here's what Scheer had to say: 

I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised on November 23, 2011, by the hon. President of the Treasury Board (Mr. Clement) concerning modifications made to the transcript of the November 2, 2011, meeting of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and the impact these changes have had on his ability to perform his duties.

I would like to thank the Minister for having raised this issue, as well as the hon. House Leader of the Official Opposition (Mr. Comartin) for his intervention.

The Minister explained that allegations that he and his staff had caused changes to be made to the published Committee Evidence of his testimony to the Committee were false, as his office had made no such requests for the committee transcript to be altered. He claimed that these allegations were a breach of his privileges, and impeded his work as a Member and a Minister.

For the benefit of Members, let me begin by making a few comments about the production of the Debates and Committee Evidence. First, it is important to note that Debates and Committee Evidence are not, in fact, verbatim transcriptions of what is said, but rather a report of the proceedings that House of Commons editors have edited for clarity, grammar and syntax. There is, however, a distinction between the processes followed for the production of the Debates as opposed to Committee Evidence. In the case of the Debates, there is a formal process in place for individual Members to consider corrections and minor alterations to their interventions as transcribed in the unedited version of the Debates, commonly referred to as the "blues". There is, however, no exactly comparable process in place for individual Members to review the transcripts of Committee Evidence. This does not mean that Members do not have an opportunity to propose changes to the unedited transcript.

House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition, at page 1219, clearly sets out how corrections and alterations are made to committee transcripts:

"Unedited transcripts of committee proceedings, known (as with the Debates) as "blues", are made available to users of Intraparl, Parliament's internal Web site, usually within 24 hours after a committee meets. Traditionally, minor corrections can be effected by submitting the proposed change to the editors; corrections of a more significant nature are made by the committee itself as a corrigendum. Should this happen, the electronic version is expeditiously updated."

When this question of privilege was raised, the Chair asked for a report on the editing process followed on the particular transcript now at issue. I can assure the House categorically that no Members or Members' staff submitted proposed changes to the transcript. The changes made were the result of normal editing protocols being followed. Let me explain.

Due to stringent timelines and the voluminous amounts of text, the technical task of editing is frequently parcelled out to multiple editors whose collective work for a given meeting is then reviewed by a Senior Editor. These Senior Editors look at the full context of the preliminary verbatim transcript, including the intonation of the person speaking, in order to accurately convey the intended meaning in the final transcript. Thus, they routinely authorize the removal of redundant words, false starts, hesitations, words that might lead to confusion as to the true intent of the statement, and so on. Sometimes entire sentences are restructured for clarity. Even within the testimony of a single witness or Member speaking, it is not unusual for words to be removed in one place and retained in another if the editors judge that, in the latter case, the words do not lead to confusion or convey an unintended meaning.

Needless to say, the editing of the transcripts of proceedings, whether in the House or in committee, is a difficult and demanding task that our editors and senior editors take very seriously. Ultimately, however, authority for the final version, as I have just indicated, rests with the Committee, and it is of course free to issue a corrigendum if it so wishes.

The question remains whether the rendering of the transcript in the manner shown has, in and of itself, impeded the President of the Treasury Board in the performance of his duties to the point of warranting a finding of prima facie privilege. The Chair must remind the House that the Speaker generally does not rule on matters related to proceedings in committee. As this matter deals with the Committee Evidence of a meeting of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, and in the absence of a report from the Committee on the matter, it would be premature for the Chair to make a determination on the matter at this time. The Chair will leave it to the Committee to determine how to address any issues arising out of the manner in which the testimony of the Minister has been transcribed.

There can be no doubt that the Minister feels aggrieved by the interpretation being given to these events. However, as presented to the Chair, and again, in the absence of a report from the Committee on the matter, I cannot find that this is sufficient grounds to establish that the Minister has been impeded in the performance of his parliamentary duties. Therefore, I cannot find that a prima facie question of privilege exists.

I thank hon. Members for their attention.
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