Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Why the Big secret it's taxpayers' money ..... eh?

Commons Board of Internal Economy too secretive but MPs like it that way
Members of the Board; NDP MP Nycole Turmel, House Speaker Andrew Scheer, who heads the Board of Internal Economy, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, Chief Government Whip Gordon O'Connor

By Lara Ryckewaert
Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Commons Board of Internal Economy, led by House Speaker Andrew Scheer, is the House’s powerful Board of Directors, which oversees the Commons’ $441-million annual budget, holds the exclusive power to rule on whether or not a Member of Parliament is misusing House resources, sets the rules for MPs’ office budgets, decides whether or not the legal fees of MPs are covered by the House, and is required to approve all financial matters in the Commons, but some say it’s too secretive and doesn’t need to be, however, none of the major parties see a problem with it.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, British Columbia) said the board is “an extremely opaque institution,” and doesn’t “see any reason for the secrecy.”

 “It is very much that the major parties make a decision about how the House is going to be run, and it’s one of the few times that you see cross-party solidarity to protect their own interests,” said Ms. May, who said she’d like to see the BOIE add another member to represent MPs not in “so-called recognized parties” as it would “do a lot to balance out” issues with transparency
Ms. May said the Board’s practice of having only two media spokespeople appears to have been “extrapolated” in a way similar to the definition of a “recognized party.”

Under the Parliament of Canada Act, a party must have at least 12 members to be recognized for party funding from the House of Commons. Ms. May said the rules only define “recognized parties” when it comes to finances, but said the definition has been “extrapolated over the years…the rules never were meant to say that parties with fewer than 12 people couldn’t sit on committees. In other words, there’s a lot of sort of conventional wisdom that’s built up around this.”

“I don’t get any more insight [into the board] than that [the minutes]. And I’m not critical of the Speaker on that point, but the Board of Internal Economy has enormous powers and it operates in an extremely non-transparent way, and it demands of its members total solidarity,” said Ms. May, who added that the board has troubled her “for decades.”

For years, the Board has only allowed two spokespeople to speak to the media about its decisions, but the designated government and NDP MPs don’t talk about their decisions until months after they’ve been made.

And no one knows where the two-person spokesperson rule came from and a former House Speaker who led the Board during the Mulroney years says there’s no need for the Board to table its minutes so infrequently.

Chief Government Whip Gordon O’Connor (Carleton-Mississippi Mills, Ontario), one of the Board’s two spokespeople, said The Hill Times was not going to be able to write a story about the Board “every week” because it meets “in confidence.” When asked where the two media spokesperson practice originated, Mr. O’Connor directed The Hill Times to the Board’s Parliamentary website.

NDP Whip Nycole Turmel (Hull-Aylmer, Quebec), who has been serving as one of the BOIE’s two spokespeople since last March, said she doesn’t see a problem with the BOIE’s spokesperson practice, but said she didn’t know where it came from.

“I don’t see a problem with this position. I think the Board of Economy is really a big deal with a lot of political issues, and it’s really confidential, so it’s really clear we have to have a spokesperson, I am the spokesperson. I don’t see a problem,” said Ms. Turmel. “Each party decides on one issue who should be the spokesperson…as we [the NDP] do right now, the critics are the spokespersons, so it’s the same for the Board of Internal Economy.”

All recognized parties—defined in the BOIE’s bylaws as a party with at least 12 seats in the Chamber—are given a seat on the board, which is always chaired by the House Speaker, currently Conservative MP Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan). For MPs not in a “recognized party,” the Board’s decisions are communicated to them via the House Speaker.

Page 2 of 3

There are seven members of the BOIE: including Mr. Scheer, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan (York-Simcoe, Ontario), Conservative MP Rob Merrifield (Yellowhead, Alberta), NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, British Columbia) and Liberal MP Judy Foote (Random-Burin-St. George’s, Newfoundland.), and Mr. O’Connor and Ms. Turmel, who are the current spokespeople.

According to meeting minutes, Mr. O’Connor and Ms. Turmel were appointed spokespeople pursuant to Standing Order 37(2). However, under Standing Order 37(2), it states only that questions during Question Period should be addressed to a designated member of the BOIE, but it doesn’t say anything about designating official spokespeople to speak to the media.

As well, the minutes are approved by the Board and describe decisions in largely vague terms. In the Senate, similar to the BOIE, is the Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration; unlike the BOIE, it publishes minutes online, and, as a portion of the meetings are sometimes conducted in public, transcripts from such meetings are also posted on the Parliamentary website when available.

“Even if the minutes don’t include the debate, per say, at least not only are the Members of the House of Commons entitled to know, but I think the public is entitled to know what these decisions were,” said former House Speaker John Fraser, who was House Speaker from 1986 to 1993, adding that the minutes “should be filed, I think, right away.”

Board minutes include less detail now then they did when Mr. Fraser was House Speaker under prime minister Brian Mulroney. For example, looking at Board minutes from 1989 to 1992, MPs were identified when they requested the House cover their legal fees when sued. During this time, the minutes also specified that the Board, in accordance with Standing Order 37(2), designated an MP “to answer questions in the House.” Today, MPs seeking for the House to cover their legal fees are kept anonymous and no specific details are released in annual public accounts. The House also refuses to say how much is spent annually on MPs’ legal fees.

But the Commons Board of Internal Economy should be more accountable. It is the governing body of the House of Commons, and holds power over House finances, administration, security, and in the managing of Members of Parliament. The clerk of the House of Commons acts under the authority of the Board.

The BOIE meets exclusively in-camera, on average every second week, when the House is sitting in Room 112-N Centre Block. Since the government came to power in January 2006, the BOIE has met a total of 82 times (on December 7, 2009, the BOIE met once in the morning and adjourned to meet again in the evening, this was counted as two meetings).

The Board does not comment on or indicate what it’s currently studying. Members of the Board take an oath of secrecy under the Parliament of Canada Act, but normally those secrecy issues relate to personnel and security issues.

The tabling of BOIE minutes appears to be happening less frequently. From 2006 to 2009, each tabling of minutes would cover somewhere between two and six meetings of the Board, for an average of four meetings per tabling. But since 2010, each tabling of minutes has covered between five and 13 meetings, for an average of about nine meetings per tabling. The last time BOIE minutes were tabled was June 20, 2012, and the minutes covered 13 meetings: the first was on November 21, 2011, and the last on April 30, 2012.

But former House Speaker Peter Milliken, who was Speaker from 2001 to 2011 and led the BOIE during these years, said he was “surprised” those minutes were tabled “so late,” and said he recalled minutes being tabled “on a fairly regular basis.” Mr. Milliken said the practice of designating two people as spokespeople “was always there.”

Under Parliament’s Standing Orders, or House rules, the BOIE has the exclusive authority to decide whether House of Commons resources provided to Parliamentarians are used properly, according to respective House guidelines. And those guidelines—the Members’ Allowances and Services Manual—are approved, reviewed and amended by the BOIE.

For example, in 2011, the Board changed the travel points system to allow MPs to use up to two of their four special points put aside for trips to Washington, D.C., to go to New York City to attend the UN; and agreed to allow MPs from “unrecognized” parties to charge interpretation services related to Parliament duties to their MOB.

The annual Report to Canadians, Parliament’s annual Strategic Outlook, and the report of expenditures incurred by individual MPs are all approved and authorized by the BOIE for tabling by the House Speaker.

Page 3 of 3

The main and supplementary estimates for each fiscal year are approved by the BOIE, and the Board has the power to approve one-time funding for special committees.

Collective bargaining agreements with House employees are ratified and approved by the Board, and it approves decisions on House of Commons accounts receivable, such as in June 2006 when the Board approved the “writing-off” of 34 accounts receivable totaling $28,479.75.

The work of the BOIE ranges from the more mundane—such as when the MPs were briefed on the Canadian flag pins sold in the Parliamentary Boutique on May 4, 2009—to the significant—such as on May 31, 2010, when they decided not to allow then Auditor General Sheila Fraser to conduct a performance audit of the House, and then changed their minds on June 14, 2010.

“I think things like that need to be discussed in private,” said Mr. Milliken. “I don’t know why you’d have it in public. If some member has a complaint that some expense was disallowed, why should that be a public discussion? For me, it’s something the Board should decide.…I think it’s what people would expect. If you were in a corporation, you’d have a Board of Directors meeting to decide similar issues and you wouldn’t expect to hear all about the discussion in the Board. You don’t know what the Cabinet’s doing in their meetings. They discuss all kinds of things about taxpayer dollars and an awful lot more, and they’re private and they’re sworn to secrecy.”

For his part, Mr. Fraser said he was unable to recall where the practice of two media spokespeople came from.

“But the whole idea of the Board of Internal Economy was the only way you were going to get a frank, and if I can put it this way, responsible discussion out of the Board of Internal Economy, is that first of all you had to have each party represented and, secondly, they had to know that what they said wasn’t going to be in the front page of the newspaper the next day,” said Mr. Fraser.

The Hill Times searched every piece of Parliamentary procedure to find mention of the BOIE’s two-spokesperson for media practice, and came up empty-handed.

While the BOIE has the power to decide how to apply any of their by-laws, there are no by-laws mentioning any sort of spokesperson. In the Parliamentary procedure book O’Brien and Bosc, it only states that two members of the Board should be designated to answer questions during Question Period and to respond to any points of order in the House, no mention of media is made.

In fact, only on the board’s online introduction page and the online compendium explaining Parliamentary procedure is the practice of having two designated media spokespeople mentioned, despite its absence from actual procedure.

But MPs across partisan lines were unwilling to discuss their opinions on the board and its level of transparency when approached by The Hill Times.

Liberal MP Judy Foote (Random-Burin-St. George’s, Newfoundland), when asked for her opinion on its transparency, said as she was not a spokesperson, and declined comment.

Mr. Cullen, a member of the board, said he didn’t know where the practice came from, but said, “it’s a good system that makes sense.”

“You have a Board that meets about all sorts of sensitive issues, that would not do well being in the public realm. You then have two spokespeople who are qualified and capable, and Madame Turmel and Mr. O’Connor are excellent at doing it,” said Mr. Cullen. “It’s a good system to keep the decisions that come out of the board very clear and concise. You don’t want people coming up and either making mistakes, intentionally, or otherwise, in describing what went on at the Board.”


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home