Inside Politics

UPDATED - NDP MP launches privilege complaint over government's non-answer on the Office of Religious Freedom

UPDATE: On March 28, Helene Laverdiere rose on a question of privilege, in which she argued that the government's blithe refusal to answer even one of the queries she raised in her question on the Office of Religious Freedom constituted a breach of her rights as a member. Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, but the speaker took the matter under advisement, and there, for the moment, the matter rests. Stay tuned!

Note: This post first appeared on March 12, 2012

Order Paper Watch: Just what we needed -- another way for the government to not answer questions

Since Confederation, MPs have dutifully filled the back pages of the Order Paper with all manner of questions on the administration of government -- specifically, questions that, by their very nature, were simply too technical or otherwise unwieldy to be answered during QP. Judging from this response to a query from NDP foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere on the Office of Religious Freedom, it really may no longer be worth the price of the toner used to print it out for tabling purposes. Not, that is, unless members are ready to kick up a fuss when a government doesn't even pretend to provide an answer.  

First, the full text of Laverdiere's question:   

With regard to the Office of Religious Freedom:

(a) when did the government decide to establish an Office of Religious Freedom and at whose request;
(b) what is the mandate and the objectives of this office;
(c) what is the budget breakdown of the office for
(i) staff,
(ii) programs,
(iii) operations;
(d) what is the reporting structure of the office;
(e) what will the office produce;
(f) how many people will be employed in this office and what will be their level;
(g) what are the hiring criteria and salary levels for each person employed in this office;
(h) how will this office work differently from other sections of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) already working on human rights issues;

(i) who was consulted regarding the creation of the office,

(i) when did the consultations take place,
(ii) what are the names and affiliations of those who were consulted;
(j) what are the names, positions, and religious affiliations of the guests who attended consultations on a new Office of Religious Freedom in October 2011,
(i) how many people from religions including, but not limited to, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, Buddhism were invited to the meeting,
(ii) how were the panellists and participants chosen for the meeting with Minister Baird,
(iii) who made the final decisions on panellists and participants chosen for the meeting,
(iv) what discussions were held at DFAIT about inviting Amnesty International and why was this organization not invited;
(k) who are the employees responsible for the development of the Office of Religious Freedom within
  • (i) the Prime Minister's Office,
  • (ii) the Minister of Foreign Affairs' Office,
  • (iii) other Ministers' offices,
  • (iv) DFAIT,
  • (v) other government departments?

Now, in its entirety, the written response from the government, which, by my count, answers exactly none of the 19 queries posed by Laverdiere, and, in fact, bears a remarkable resemblance to the boilerplate bumph found in the backgrounder of a press kit:

The promotion and protection of human rights is fundamental to Canada's foreign policy, and the Government of Canada believes strongly in the ability of all people to be to practice their religion of choice. Canadians enjoy the rights and privileges that come with living in a free and democratic society in which human rights are respected. The Government is also keenly aware of the struggles that religious minorities face around the world. During the Speech from the Throne, on June 3, 2011, and again at the United Nations General Assembly, the Government of Canada committed to creating an Office of Religious Freedom (Office) [sic].

At this time, no formal announcement has been made and work is ongoing. It is expected that the Office wil focus on areas such as advocacy, analysis, policy development and programming related to protecting and advocating on behalf of religious minorities under threat; opposing religious hatred; and promoting Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad. The budget for the Office will be 5$ million per annum for the next 4 years. The Government expects to have more to say about this important initiative shortly.
So, what, if anything, can an MP do if left unsatisfied by the response provided by the government? Unfortunately for Laverdiere -- and, indeed, for anyone else who might have been interested in the issue -- not much.

According to the parliamentary bible that is O'Brien and Bosc,  replies to written questions are expected to follow the same guidelines as those that are theoretically applied to answers delivered during oral questions (AKA QP); namely, that "no argument or opinion is to be given and only the information needed to respond to the question is to be provided in an effort to maintain the process of written questions as an exchange of information rather than an opportunity for debate."

The guidelines also permit the government to "indicate that it cannot provide an answer," but are, alas, silent on whether it is appropriate to provide an answer that utterly ignores the substance of the question that was asked.

As for an appeal process, according to O'B&B, there are "no provisions in the rules for the Speaker to review government responses to questions," but it does note that members "have occasionally raised questions of privilege" regarding "the accuracy of information contained in responses to written questions," although not, as yet, successfully, as none were ultimately deemed prima facie breaches of privilege.

Then again, in this instance, it's not even a question of whether the information contained in the response is accurate, but whether the response contained any actual information at all, which may indeed put it under the purview of the Speaker. In any case, we'll see if Laverdiere raises the matter in the House, or gives it up as the procedural equivalent of a bad debt.  

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