Conservatives call for probe into claims of political bias made against Commons clerk

The Conservatives today called for a parliamentary committee to publicly investigate claims of political bias made against the clerk of the House of Commons.

Clerk Charles Robert said he has served parliamentarians for 40 years with integrity

Clerk of the House of Commons Charles Robert was in the Commons Tuesday as MPs were arguing over the right venue to look into claims he acted with bias. Robert has said he's always acted with integrity. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives today called for a parliamentary committee to publicly investigate claims of political bias made against the clerk of the House of Commons.

Clerk Charles Robert was sitting in the chamber on the second day of the new session of Parliament when Conservative MPs demanded a public probe.

"The allegations that have come to light over the last several weeks deeply suggest something is wrong and something is amiss," said Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner.

"There are people here who do not have voice and this is a place to give voice to them."

Earlier this month, CBC News reported three senior managers went on sick leave and left their jobs over concerns about Robert's work performance. A fourth executive is currently on sick leave. 

The auditor also walked off the job over concerns Robert created a conflict of interest by removing the ability for the auditor to take concerns directly to the Speaker, sources said. 

Two of the departing managers submitted letters to Robert's supervisor, the Speaker, claiming he broke the cardinal rule of his job and acted in a way they perceived as biased toward the Liberals, treated some staff members with disrespect and was regularly seen sleeping on the job.

CBC spoke to 10 sources who corroborated the claims and provided additional examples.

In response, Robert told CBC News he has served Parliament for 40 years with integrity and to the best of his ability. He confirmed that a 2018 external review ordered by then-Speaker Geoff Regan looked into complaints about him sleeping on the job.

"The 2018 report identified the situation with respect to instance of falling asleep in the Chamber and it has since been addressed," Robert told CBC News in a statement.

Robert said he made significant changes to the office and a group of senior managers resisted that change. He said the external review found claims about his integrity and ethics were baseless.

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

Sen. Leo Housakos, who was appointed by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, has come to Robert's defence, saying he has only ever known the clerk to act in a professional, trustworthy and non-partisan manner.

Conservative MP John Brassard raised a question of privilege in the House of Commons on Tuesday, stating that the "extremely disturbing and troubling" allegations should be looked into by the Commons committee on procedure and House affairs, rather than behind closed doors.

Before the election, opposition House leaders and whips pushed for an external review of the departures from the clerk's office during a confidential, in-camera Board of Internal Economy (BOIE) meeting in July, said sources.

Conservatives argue that looking at the matter in private violates their privilege as members of Parliament.

In response to the Conservatives' calls for a public probe, Mark Holland, the Liberal government House leader, called a point of order today, saying that discussing a human resources matter publicly would set a "terrible precedent."

"There is a line being crossed," said Holland. "We have a Board of Internal Economy. We have a process for this."

Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Mark Holland says that the Board of Internal Economy should deal with the allegations involving the clerk. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The NDP and the Bloc both supported the Liberals' position that the matter should be dealt with in-camera at the BOIE. The Bloc called for that board to order an investigation and report back to the House. 

Rempel Garner raised a point of order and argued that the BOIE is not the proper venue. 

She said that since Parliament was dissolved, allegations have also come to light about the House of Commons' ability to address sexual harassment complaints against former members of Parliament.

Rempel Garner claimed there were serious allegations against Raj Saini when he was an MP — allegations involving claims of inappropriate touching and unwanted advances on younger female staffers that she said were not properly handled. Saini denies the allegations and ended his bid for re-election in September.

A former Saini staffer alleged that she was steered into mediation by the House of Commons administration when she felt a complaint was warranted, Rempel Garner said.

The Conservative MP said that she doesn't feel secure at work because others feel unsafe.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner wants the procedure and House affairs committee to look publicly into claims against the clerk of the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"A decade into working here, I still don't feel it's safe to work here," Rempel Garner said. "With respect, Mr. Speaker, I don't think shunting this issue into a closed door committee when there are people at home who have not had justice is appropriate. I can't stress this enough."

Robert's supervisor, re-elected Speaker of the House Anthony Rota, said today he hopes to issue a ruling on whether privileges have been violated in the next week or so.

"It's something that takes time and consideration so we do the right thing," Rota said. "All of us want this place to be safe. Sexual harassment is something we take very seriously."

With files from Kristen Everson