Staff disclosure rules risk a 'witch hunt,' Parliament's watchdogs warn

Parliament's watchdogs used terms like 'witch hunt,' and 'metaphorical tattoo' to argue against a bill that would require their employees and potential hires to disclose any past political positions.

'For what specific problem is this legislation a remedy?' wonders privacy watchdog Daniel Therrien

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, Commissioner of Official Languages Graham Fraser, and Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, appear as witnesses before the Senate finance committee. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Parliament's watchdogs used terms like "witch hunt," and "metaphorical tattoo" to argue against a bill that would require their employees and potential hires to disclose any past political positions.

Four agents of Parliament who appeared before a Senate committee Wednesday night said that Bill C-520 appears to be trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist, but could create new ones.

"Candidates for positions in the offices of agents of Parliament must declare their past political activities, but what are agents to do with this information?" said Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, who said political preference is considered by law sensitive personal information.

"Or put another way, it is not clear for what specific problem is this legislation a remedy?"

Conservative MP Mark Adler's private member's bill obliges anybody applying for a job with an agent of Parliament to declare prior political work.

Current and future employees would have to post their political histories for the decade before their hire on the Internet.

For some veteran employees, that could mean having information posted about their political activities stretching back 20 or 30 years, Therrien noted.

Bill designed to prevent conflict of interest: sponsor

Agents of Parliament include the auditor general, the information and privacy commissioners, the chief electoral officer and the commissioner of official languages.

Adler has said the bill is designed to prevent any potential conflicts of interest, and fits in with the government's approach to accountability and transparency.

But the agents and the Public Service Commission of Canada pointed out that public servants are already subject to acts and codes that cover non-partisanship, and that their hiring is based solely on merit.

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault wondered whether the bill's underlying message is that a public servant cannot act impartially if they had done political work before.

She took the committee through a scenario of what could happen if the bill became law, noting that opposition MPs regularly file access-to-information complaints with her office against government departments.

"What does that mean? Can the person say I do not want this investigator on my file because that person is someone who used to work for the Conservative party...?" Legault testified.

"This aura of potential partisanship is now out there against this employee, there is no recourse for this employee. They cannot say anything about this investigation."

Legault added that the decisions of her officer are already scrutinized by Parliament and sometimes even by the courts, and that the bill runs the risk of politicizing her office.

Bill suggests past partisan work 'is something to be ashamed of'

Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser said that political experience is actually an asset for certain government jobs, and that the bill might deter former candidates and aides from applying.

"I'm concerned that this bill suggests that (past) partisan activity is something to be ashamed of, a liability, rather than an asset," Fraser said.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson said there is nothing in the bill to indicate how and when the information must be taken down from the Internet -- making it a "metaphorical tattoo."

"Because of that there could be an incentive for people who, when they should disclose something...maybe will have an incentive not to disclose now because it would be public," Ferguson said.

Adler's bill was amended by a Commons committee before it passed third reading in the House of Commons and made its way to the Senate.

The bill's future in the upper chamber is unclear -- some Conservative senators have expressed concern with its contents.


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