So I have a confession to make: I was actually going to skip Ethics this afternoon, since my thumbs are still recovering from this morning’s double header, but when I found out Pat Martin was planning on moving his motion to amend the Code of Conduct to make a defamation lawsuit not count as a conflict of interest for a sitting MP—as would be the case under the Thibault ruling—I just had to trundle over to West Block to watch. So here I am, and here is Pat Martin, and here we go.
Alright, the motion has officially been tabled, and now Paul Szabo has the floor. He, apparently, has a ruling to make, and it involves the Procedure and House Affairs committee, and how amending the Code of Conduct—which is what Martin proposes to do—technically falls under its aegis. He points out that the committee is “master of its own work order and agenda” (usually more poetically termed “destiny”), and he rules it out of order.
Right on cue, Martin challenges the ruling of the chair—very politely, almost as though it was arranged—and with that, the Conservatives vote in favour of the ruling, the opposition votes against it, and presto, the motion is now in order. That was easy. Now, for the tricky part.
Martin kicks off his argument by predicting a parliament besieged by an avalanche of lawsuits—SLAPP suits; the “oldest corporate trick in the book.” He gives a typically Martinesque speech—did you know that papers don’t even have to be filed for the conflict to kick in? That, points out Pat, is what happened to Thibault; the Code has to be amended, and amended immediately, and that’s what has to happen right now. He drums his fingers on the table to emphasize the importance of the issue at hand.
“If it could happen to Mr. Thibault, it could happen to anyone,” he notes, illustrating his worry with a hypothetical that involves a big bad patent drug company suing him into silence if he dared criticize the tactic of “evergreening.” We are not, he says, in a conflict of interest just because someone slaps us with a conflict of interest.
Russ Hiebert is next to speak, and he is annoyed already that the motion was found in order—well, technically, not “found”, but “forced by democratic vote”—and says it is absurd that this committee can take over the responsibility better held by Procedure and House Affairs. That said, he goes on to condemn the motion that would “give more power to parliamentarians to beat up on innocent people,” who would then be unable to launch a libel suit.
This situation, he says, “is very rare”—and somehow, the opposition members manage to avoid adding, “but then, this Conservative government and its penchant for tactical litigation are relatively new in town.” He then imagines an alternate universe where the Dawson ruling came down before the committee had concluded its work on Mulroney, and really, as far as he’s concerned, it’s “hardly menacing, or a constraint” on his rights as an MP.
Canadians, Hiebert says, don’t want MPs to use their positions as a “bully pulpit,” or to benefit their private interests, and he agrees with the ruling as written. It’s “ludicrous” that the committee is considering it, and he wants the committee to put it aside and get back to work.
Mark Holland goes next, and admits that he was “shocked” when he talked to the Ethics Commissioner about this ruling; he is, of course, being sued for defamation by one of John Baird’s staffers, so he has a vested interest, although not a conflict of interest by any sane measure. By spending $1,000 to drop a lawsuit, anyone can silence an MP, he notes.
He recalls that back when the Conservatives were in opposition, they occasionally said things that he found offensive—what if someone had shut them up? Would we have even had a Gomery inquiry? Could Public Accounts have held hearings into sponsorship? This ruling is an attack on the very heart of democracy, he says. It scares the heck out of him, and should scare the heck out of everyone.
Hello, Voice of Sanity! Carole Lavallee agrees that it is a “frightening situation,” especially since the Conservative government has established a new precedent by suing the Leader of the Opposition over Cadman; this is a precedent that favours the rich and powerful. Oh, and she notes that she was “astonished,” during the hearings, by how many lawyers were perusing every word on behalf of Team Mulroney, and received so many letters that she started sending them, en masse, to the committee staff. It was intimidation, pure and simple, she concludes, which is why she wants to amend the motion—a friendly amendment—to make it clear that the matter should be reported to the House at the earliest possible time.
And now, Paul Zed, who isn’t a regular on the committee, but who chaired the one that set up the skeleton of the code of conduct now in place. He, too, is disturbed by the ruling, not surprisingly— and he’s also disturbed that the committee system is in such disarray that a matter of this significance has to be shunted off to another committee because of the brokenness of Procedure and House Affairs.
It’s David Tilson! Do you think it’s possible that he may be feeling a touch cranky? I wonder. Well, he starts off by complaining over the motion having been brought here in the first place—and vaguely threatening to filibuster by saying that he and his side “want to talk a little about this”—and snarls at Pat Martin for taking it this far. Then, it’s a crash course in conflict of interest, and judges recusing themselves, and—yeah, but the very nature of a conflict is that it is a voluntary state; one cannot have conflict thrust upon one via dilatory lawsuit. Not that I’m passing judgment on the action against Thibault, of course. I was speaking of generally dilatory lawsuits. Vexatious litigation. All that stuff.
David Tilson would like to remind us all that MPs are not above the law. So noted. He’s “disappointed” in Pat Martin, who he respects tremendously—he has been the “great protector” of accountability, at committee and in the House. That has to smart. Poor Pat. Lesson of the day: He who fails to disturbeth his own house shall inherit the cranky David Tilson.
And now, a brief interlude, while Tilson reads aloud from the Dawson ruling.
Don’t come away with the impression that Tilson is a Mary Dawson fanboy, incidentally. He’s still fuming over the fact that it took so long for her to come to a decision—long after the hearings were over, he notes, grimly. “She found him guilty of three counts, but no sanctions,” he rages. “Isn’t that funny.”
Wait, what? Seriously, what is he implying here? Or is this just scattershot outrage? “We’re not above the law, and we’re not invincible,” he says, drumming his fingers as an ironic counterpoint to Martin’s opening speech.
Ah, Mike Wallace. He picks on the wording—which suggests that the Standing Orders would be amended, and he wonders if they even have the authority to do that, which results in some procedural back-and-forthing with the chair. Szabo notes that the committee can’t change the Standing Orders all by itself, although it can recommend a change, and propose a motion that would do so, pending a vote in the House.
“If the report says ‘Mike Wallace is a great guy,’ is that a recommendation?” he wonders. Well, as the only Ethics member promoted from Pylon to Player, I’d say yes, but that was in another country (and besides, the Mulroney inquiry is dead).
Mike Wallace isn’t going to support the motion, by the way. I know, I’m shocked too.
He gives a long, slightly confusing example involving other members calling him a liar and a cheat, which I frankly have trouble imagining, and then clumsily echoes what appears to be the official counterargument to the Martin motion—Martin, by the way, is waving his hand lackadaisically at the chair, so I think he may have something to add—that there have to be limits on parliamentary power.
Thibault, he notes, said things outside the House—to television cameras, and print reporters, and that was the difference.
Wait, why? Why shouldn’t privilege extend to statements made as part of one’s duties as a parliamentarian, regardless of where they are made? I mean, we have television in the House, so really, anything one says there can be rebroadcast to the world.
Martin reminds Wallace that his motion wouldn’t stop people from suing, or being sued—it would just omit it as a conflict. Holland agrees that this has to be clarified—the meaning of the motion is being “perverted” by those arguing against it. This is to ensure members are able to speak out at all, he says.
Hiebert thinks this is “nonsense” and “ludicrous,” as the ruling only prevents members from speaking publicly on a particular party—corporate or individual—at committee, or in the House. “There’s no silencing here whatsoever,” he insists.
Szabo interjects to say that he talked to the clerk, who agreed that the matter is out of order, but puts the question anyway:
All those in favour of the motion as amended: the opposition (after the Liberals have to be poked to vote for the amendment; they apparently mistook it for a hostile one, but it wasn’t). The government members grumble and demand that the vote be recorded, the chair waves them off, and—that’s that. Parliamentary sanity! It’s back, baby! And me, I’m gone—after three committees in five hours, I need a break.