Thursday, April 24, 2008

Free speech for MPs!

The pages of the Ottawa Citizen are plastered today with attacks on the notion of parliamentary privilege, with special reference to the recent censure of RCMP Deputy Commissioner Barbara George. The House of Commons unanimously found her in contempt of Parliament on April 10 for misleading the House public accounts committee in February 2007. In doing so, they upheld the committee's naming of George for contempt of Parliament at the time.

During an investigation of the scandal-plagued RCMP's mishandling of their employee pension plan, George had allegedly been involved in the removal of a gung-ho investigator, Staff-Sgt. Mike Frizzell, from the case. She twice claimed before the House committee that she had not, despite evidence to the contrary.

RCMP behaviour around this issue met the low-quality standard that we have come, unfortunately, to expect of this out-of-control national police force. But that's not the issue that I want to address. Rather, it's the quaint notion that Parliamentarians should not be able to express themselves in their own chamber--that they should be denied their right to freedom of speech.

Kathryn May, the writer of the article, trundles out "experts" who thunder against the naming of George for contempt. A visiting professor at the University of Ottawa attacked the public accounts committee for doing so this past February. She called the Committee a "schoolyard bully" and claimed that it was "over the top" in making its ruling.

May goes on to refer to "archaic privileges...threatening the rights of Canadians." Former MP Serge Joyal is cited: he refers to a case of discrimination brought against the Speaker of the House at the time, where the Speaker claimed parliamentary privilege. But the Supreme Court ruled that the Speaker was not shielded, and that the human rights case against him could proceed. In other words, the system worked. Nevertheless, Joyal insists that parliamentary privilege, once a shield against the Crown, has been "transformed into a sword."

Conservative MP John Williams sees the matter a little differently. "How much more due process did she want?" he asked:

We wrote to her about our concerns; we gave her a couple of weeks to prepare and the floor to speak as long as she needed to explain and she reaffirmed that she gave a truthful statement....This wasn't done in a cavalier way. We handled this soberly, deliberately and thoughtfully to ensure her rights were protected and she was given every opportunity to explain herself. You can't abuse committees and not expect them to react.

And I think he puts the matter very well. What "rights" are being infringed, what "sword" is being wielded, when a parliamentary committee, and then the House in session, express an opinion? Because that is the sum total of what they did. They were displeased with what they not unreasonably considered to be obfuscations and prevarications before the committee by the RCMP Deputy Commissioner, and they said so. That's what being held in contempt is. That's what a motion of censure is. Both are expressions of opinion.

George was not fined, deprived of her liberty or stripped of her rights. She was told off.
Twice. Since when should our elected officials be denied the right to do just that?

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