Canada

Commons clerk who was accused of bias, sleeping on the job is retiring

Clerk of the House of Commons Charles Robert — who has been accused of political bias and sleeping on the job — is retiring. News of his departure comes after the Conservatives called for an external investigation into claims he broke the cardinal requirement of his role — to remain nonpartisan.

Clerk Charles Robert says he's retiring so a new strategic plan can be carried out by someone else

Clerk of the House of Commons Charles Robert announced he's retiring in the new year. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Clerk of the House of Commons Charles Robert — who has been accused of political bias and sleeping on the job — is retiring after more than 42 years working on Parliament Hill.

News of his departure comes after the Conservatives called for an external investigation into claims Robert broke the cardinal requirement of his role — to remain nonpartisan.

Robert has defended himself from those claims, insisting he has served all parliamentarians of all political stripes with integrity. He announced this week he's leaving his role on January 13 after more than five years as Commons clerk.

He told MPs on the Board of Internal Economy (BOIE) on Wednesday that the Commons is rolling out a new strategic plan in the new year and it "should be championed by someone who can carry it through from its beginning to its end." 

"Given this reality, I feel it is an appropriate time for me to step away," Robert said Wednesday. "I am announcing today that I will retire from the service of the House ...

"Though it has not been without its challenges, serving as your clerk has been an honour and privilege. I am most proud of being part of such a remarkable team ..."

It's not clear if the allegations played any role in the timing of his retirement. Robert has not yet responded to a CBC News request for comment.

CBC News reported in November 2021 on a series of written complaints and letters to the Speaker that showed five senior managers who worked closely with Robert started raising concerns about his workplace behaviour on behalf of staff members in 2018.

Departing staff members claimed Robert acted in a way that was partial to the Liberals, treated some staff members with disrespect, and was regularly seen sleeping on the job during question period in the chamber, the documents showed.

Allegations about Robert's performance and treatment of staff were brought to the BOIE last year, according to sources with knowledge of the matter. The BOIE had not addressed the allegations fully before Robert announced his retirement, the sources said.

Since last year, the Conservatives, supported by the Bloc Québécois, have been calling on the BOIE to launch an external probe into allegations that Robert engaged in partisan behaviour in the workplace.

WATCHHouse of Commons clerk announces his retirement: 

Clerk of the House of Commons announces his retirement

2 months ago
Duration 1:52
Charles Robert says it's an "appropriate time for me to step away" so a new strategic plan can be championed from beginning to end by someone else.

Conservative MP and deputy whip Chris Warkentin said his party's request for an external review "was never undertaken."

"These allegations were raised by longstanding professional staff within his office and we believe they should have been taken seriously," Warkentin said in a media statement to CBC News.

"Real or perceived, breaching the principle of impartiality is not only egregious, but a grave betrayal of all Canadians. "

The office of government House leader Mark Holland said a review conducted in 2018 "found without ambiguity that [Robert] acted professionally and with integrity in all of his service."

WATCHHouse of Commons clerk accused of favouring Liberal government:

House of Commons clerk accused of favouring Liberal government

1 year ago
Duration 2:30
CBC News has learned that senior staff have accused Clerk of the House of Commons Charles Robert of partisanship in favour of the Liberal government. The clerk is supposed to offer impartial advice to parliamentarians from all political parties.

That 2018 review did not look into the claims of partisanship that arose later, sources said.

Robert told CBC News last year that he made significant changes to the office and a group of senior managers resisted that change. He said the "2018 report identified the situation with respect to instance of falling asleep in the Chamber and it has since been addressed."

Conservatives call for changes to appointment process 

The Conservatives are now calling for a more "robust and transparent" appointment process to choose Robert's replacement. Warkentin said the Liberals used the current process to "rush" Robert's appointment.

"It is important that the government learns from this mistake," he added.

According to a Hill Times report, former clerk Robert Marleau publicly criticized the approach the Liberal government took to select Robert for the job. Traditionally, the deputy clerk of the House was promoted to replace a departing clerk.

Instead, the Liberal government used a four-person panel composed of representatives from the Prime Minister's Office, the Privy Council Office and the House leader's office to select Robert in 2017. Robert was an external appointment; he was serving as the interim clerk of the Senate at the time.

Multiple sources question why the government picked Robert for the role when, at the time of his appointment, he was in a long-term relationship with a Liberal-appointed senator. Robert has said he disclosed his relationship at the time of his selection and appointment.

The PMO has defended the appointment, calling it the result of an "open and merit-based appointment process."

MPs recognized Robert's service

During his speech at the BOIE about his retirement plans, Robert said in French it would be hard to imagine a better way to end his career on Parliament Hill, which saw him employed at the parliamentary library, the House and the Senate before returning to the House as clerk.

He said it's been quite a journey, one that has reinforced his admiration for our "amazing parliamentary system at the heart of our democracy."

MPs from multiple political parties recognized Robert's contributions during his lengthy career in both chambers. 

Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota thanked Robert for his service and said it was an 'honour and privilege working with you' and said he's not just losing a colleague but is losing a friend. (The Canadian Press)

Speaker Anthony Rota, Robert's supervisor, called it a "sad day for Parliament" and said the "commitment" Robert has shown "over the years has been outstanding."

"You were part of the institution and I think that's something that will live on indefinitely," said Rota, adding he was losing both a colleague and a friend.

The House of Commons issued a statement about Robert's retirement. It says he led the administration through "significant periods of transformation," including the move to West Block during construction and the launch of hybrid proceedings and e-voting during the pandemic.

Robert also improved members' services, streamlined administrative support and expanded programs for MPs, including digital security, according to the Commons statement.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She earned the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct against senior military leaders. Her beats include transport, defence and federal government accountability. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/

With files from Kristen Everson

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