Contempt debate before MPs again

MPs on a Commons committee are meeting again on Monday to decide whether to recommend that the government be held in contempt.
International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, left, and CIDA President Margaret Biggs appear as witnesses at a Commons committee hearing in Ottawa into whether Oda is in contempt of Parliament, March 18, 2011. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

MPs on a Commons committee are meeting again on Monday to decide whether to recommend that the government be held in contempt.

Opposition MPs say they still think International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda is in contempt of Parliament despite her testimony on Friday, when she addressed the procedure and house affairs committee that is examining her earlier explanation for defunding  the church-backed aid agency Kairos.

Oda told a Commons committee last year that Kairos was denied $7 million in funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) because it did not meet the department's funding criteria.

Three days of committee meetings wrapped up Friday after hearing witnesses on two breach of privilege issues involving Oda and the government.

The committee returns Monday morning to debate a report on the first two days of testimony, which dealt with a request by Liberal MP Scott Brison for the government to provide more financial information on its justice system reforms.

The Oda report doesn't have to go to the House of Commons until March 25, but the report on Brison's motion must be tabled Monday.

MPs on the committee can recommend attaching to the report a motion to find the government in contempt.

On Friday, Oda said she did not take direction from Prime Minister Stephen Harper or from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney when she decided her department should stop funding Kairos.

She said it wasn't discussed at any cabinet or sub-cabinet meetings.

Kenney statements 'not true'

Oda named the officials she told to insert the "not" and use the Auto-Pen machine that mimicked her signature on the document. She says she was in her car on the way back to her riding when the memo had to be signed, so she asked Stephanie Mackel, one of her staffers, to insert the "not." One of two staffers authorized to use the Auto-Pen then added Oda's signature.

Opposition MPs didn't seem moved by Oda's explanation, saying they think she's in contempt of Parliament.

NDP MP Pat Martin pointed to a speech made by Kenney shortly after Oda decided not to fund Kairos. Kenney told an audience in Jerusalem in December 2009 that the government stopped funding Kairos because the group is anti-Semitic.

Mary Corkery, executive director of Kairos, says Kenney's statements are false.

"Those things are not true and totally misrepresent our position, which is in fact very close to the [government's] position. Our policies are very close to the policies of the Canadian government," she said.

Earlier this year, Corkery told Radio-Canada she suspects Kenney mixed Kairos up with another group.

"We think he had us confused with Kairos Palestine, and Kairos Palestine actually released a document a week earlier in which they expressed the passion of the Palestinian Christians for an independent state and for peace," she said. "And in that, they asked people around the world to consider supporting their call for boycott, divestment and sanctions as economic measures to bring about peace.

"Kairos in Canada has never adopted that action," Corkery said.

Kairos is Greek for "crisis" or "important time," and the word is often used by church organizations for urgent campaigns.

After Oda's testimony, Martin blamed Kenney for Kairos losing its funding.

"We believe the decision was directly related to Jason Kenney thinking they're an anti-Semitic organization," the NDP MP said.

Intent to mislead?

Martin said Oda deliberately misled Parliament and misled the public.

"If that's contempt, then she's in contempt," he said.

Liberal MP John McKay, who raised the motion that brought Oda to committee, said 90 days after he originally asked at the foreign affairs committee who inserted the "not," he finally has his answer.

"She knew the answer to the question the day following the day I asked the question," he said, but needed to be forced to answer it.

"I think it's a confirmation of contempt."

House of Commons law clerk Rob Walsh said the breach of privilege question isn't just about whether there's direct intent to mislead, but whether there were opportunities for Oda to clarify the December statement that led to all the confusion.

"That opportunity was not taken for that purpose. And then after a while ... it might be the reasonable conclusion that there was intent to mislead because there were opportunities to clarify that issue and [they were] not taken.

A document signed by Oda and two CIDA officials that seemed to indicate that Kairos would receive the funding was altered by the addition of the word "not" to deny the cash. Oda has said she does not know who added the word "not," but it was her decision to deny the funding.

She later apologized in the House for confusion over the decision.

Did 'not' follow normal procedures?

During a contentious meeting where MPs frequently raised their voices, the opposition questioned whether it was normal procedure for ministers to insert a handwritten "not" to convey their decisions.

Oda herself referred to it as a "crude process," but said that was the way it was done at CIDA.

"In the case where I may have disagreed with the recommendations made by CIDA officials, this was common practice," she said. "It was the way we indicated and relayed the minister's decision ... This was a way of reflecting my decision back to them."

Bloc MP Pierre Paquette said there's an amateurishness to that process that makes it hard to believe.

But when MPs tried to get CIDA president Margaret Biggs, who was appearing with Oda before the committee, to confirm that, Biggs didn't directly answer.

Liberal MP David McGuinty said in his experience in the public service the normal procedure was for the minister to either strike off the whole sheet or write a giant no on the cover and send it back to departmental staff.

"Is it common practice that ministers strike off or write a giant no or simply don't sign the document and send it back to your office?" he asked.

Biggs said she knew of other situations where Oda had used the insertion method. But she wouldn't say whether other ministers she knew did the same thing.

"It is a practice for ministers to convey their decisions to the department and they do use different means. You can write 'do not agree,' strike it across as you said, [write] 'no, do not agree,' initial it, date it," Biggs said.

"The minister had communicated the decision to me verbally, so I wasn't confused about the decision," she added.

Biggs noted she has since implemented a new format for the memos that allows the minister to check a box to say they agree or disagree with the recommendation.

Handles hundreds of memos

Oda said 760 memos came to her for signature last year, and she simply can't sign all of them herself.

The Prime Minister's Office sent two memos to the media Thursday afternoon to prove Oda's point that this was how she usually dealt with memos she didn't approve.

The memos, bearing Oda's signatures and dated March 2010 and May 2010, have "not" and "do not" inserted into the recommendation to approve from CIDA staff. There were no memos from previous ministers or other governments included in the release.

Speaker Peter Milliken ruled last week that there was at least the appearance that Oda had misled the House over the Kairos issue. MPs referred the issue back to the procedure and House affairs committee to draft a report for Parliament that could find Oda in contempt and lead to consequences against the minister in the House.

Oda addressed the committee hearing Friday morning, joined by Biggs.

Corkery is also taking the stand to give her side of the story, followed by Walsh, before meeting in camera to draft a preliminary version of the report.

Queen's University Prof. Ned Franks, an expert on parliamentary procedure, was the morning's first witness.BLOG RECAP: Question of privilege in the Oda affair