Hand over the tapes and nobody gets hurt: Liveblogging the Public Accounts Committee - Macleans.ca

Hand over the tapes and nobody gets hurt: Liveblogging the Public Accounts Committee

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Hey, remember those mysterious audio tapes that Public Accounts has has such a very hard time prying out of the overprotective clutches of Public Works officials? This afternoon, committee members will have a chance to buttonhole the bureaucrats behind the decision to block the request, which could make for a lively meeting — so be sure to check back at 3:30 p.m. for full liveblogging coverage.

(For past ITQ coverage of this issue, click here.)


3:23:08 PM
Oh, Wellington Building. Truly, you are where otherwise potentially media-attracting committees go to die. Due to a last minute committee room shuffle, ITQ very nearly didn’t make it to this, what will most likely be her very last committee liveblogging for the next two months. Turns out that the one drawback to having a committee that ordinarily meets in one the two main rooms on either side of the Hall of Honour — the Railway and Reading Rooms, that is — is that you run the risk of being unexpectedly uprooted during the end-of-session reception season. It looks like ITQ wasn’t the only one who forgot to check the notice for today’s meeting; a few minutes after she arrived, a little-green-busful of slightly rain-soaked MPs arrived, complaining to each other over the long haul from Centre Block.

3:30:41 PM
With a gentle tap of the gavel, Shawn Murphy brings the meeting to order, and gives a brief recap of the business at hand. He introduces the witnesses – Daphne Meredith, Caroline Weber and Ellen Stensholt, all with Public Works – before ceding the floor to Bloc Quebecois MP Meille Faille, who brought the original motion requesting the tapes, and who announces that she has now gone through *all* the CDs that the department has grudgingly handed over thus far — a job she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy, she notes. She’s ready to give the committee her report on what she heard, as well as what was edited out of the tapes. The chair offers to give her seven minutes after the opening statement, and hands the floor over to Meredith, an associate deputy minister with Corporate Services, Policy and Communications.

3:37:46 PM
Meredith begins by giving some background on the consultation sessions at the centre of the controversy, and notes that the department consulted with Justice lawyers upon receiving the request, and were advised that consent had to be sought from any individuals who took part, but whose names were not already publicly available. Five declined consent, which is why the audio was edited, although “errors were made” in the deletion process. She assures the committee that the names were the only bits of audio redacted from the tapes — roughly twelve seconds, total.

3:43:31 PM
With that, she concludes, and Faille delivers *her* report, after explaining why she had suggested that the committee request the tapes in the first place. She doesn’t have the same interpretation of the privacy laws as the deputy minister, as it turns out, and doesn’t understand why a particular section was removed; it sounds as though she doesn’t quite believe the claim that only a few seconds were removed from the tapes, and points out that, since the agenda is available, you can go through the audio and figure out what’s missing. It does sound like a lot, by the way. Oh, it is — more than seven hours, according to Faille’s tape deconstructing. She also wants to know who was responsible for contacting the individuals involved.

3:48:36 PM
The content of the recordings, Faille says, shows that there was a distinct lack of details provided during the presentations – and there was nothing about the impact on small and medium-sized business, although maybe that was in the seven or so hours that didn’t make the final cut.
3:49:58 PM

With that, she concludes, and Faille delivers *her* report, after explaining why she had suggested that the committee request the tapes in the first place. She doesn’t have the same interpretation of the privacy laws as the deputy minister, as it turns out, and doesn’t understand why a particular section was removed; it sounds as though she doesn’t quite believe the claim that only a few seconds were removed from the tapes, and points out that, since the agenda is available, you can go through the audio and figure out what’s missing. It does sound like a lot, by the way. Oh, it is — more than seven hours, according to Faille’s tape deconstructing. She also wants to know who was responsible for contacting the individuals involved.
After Faille finishes her debriefing, Murphy reminds the committee that according to *their* legal counsel, the privacy laws do not apply here.
3:52:12 PM
First up: Martha Hall Findlay for the Liberals, who asks the obvious question – what’s with the discrepency between the twelve seconds that department claims were edited out, and Faille’s conclusion that as much as seven hours might have been expurgated. Meredith doesn’t really have an answer to that — she suggests that some of the sessions may not have been taped, but promises to go back and double check.

3:56:28 PM
There’s a bit of grousing from the government side when it sounds as though Findlay is attempting to tiptoe over the line and begin questioning witnesses about the procurement process itself – not just the tapes, which are, as Andrew Saxton reminds her, the subject of today’s meeting. She points out, not unreasonably, that she’s just trying to figure out if any of the information provided – the business plan or other strategic information – would have been covered in the missing minutes, and the chair eventually rules her question in order — not that it helps, mind you, because the response from the department is less than clear.

3:58:45 PM
With that, it’s over to Faille for her first and only round; she wants to know why the department is attempting to hide information from the committee, and points to some “very troubling remarks” by the President of the Treasury Board — hey, that’s Vic Toews! — which sparks an immediate point of order from Daryl Kramp, who doesn’t want to see the committee “go off on a tangent”, and suggests that it’s “not their job” — this committee’s job, that is — to study the deal itself. Murphy gives Faille an opportunity to respond, and she calmly explains to Kramp, and everyone else, that she just wants to know if the section related to the “business case” was cut out of the tapes.

4:02:54 PM
Saxton – who is a bit of a teacher’s pet, or, more accurately, a Whip or House Leader’s pet – suggests that the committee hold an in camera meeting to *listen* to the tapes, and the chair attempts to play peacemaker by suggesting that the department “provide a written response” to the committee. Terence Young, meanwhile, wonders if this might be a technical glitch — maybe there was something wrong with the CDs that Faille was studying, he suggests, which prompts grumbling from the opposition side.

4:05:32 PM
David Christopherson begins *his* seven minute round by lauding Faille for her work in putting together her report — he’s never seen anything like it, he notes – and gets right to the core of the issue, as far as the tapes — the department was told to hand over *unaltered* material, and it did not. He notes that regardless of what advice the departmental lawyers may have given, the committee consulted *its* lawyer, who happens to be Rob Walsh, the Commons Law Clerk, “and the top lawyer in this place”. He challenges Meredith to explain why *her* lawyers should trump him. Which she — doesn’t really do; after hemming and hawing for a moment, she turns the microphone over to Ellen Stensholt, senior general counsel at Public Works, who tells Christopherson that *her* department doesn’t make legal choices based on whether it will be sued, but how it interprets the law.

4:09:59 PM
Oh, guess who’s here? Rob Walsh! I didn’t even see him, sitting quietly to the left of the chair, but he’s now politely, but categorically, contradicting Stensholt’s claim — this committtee, he reminds us, is constitutionally mandated; it can compel information, and it’s as simple as that.

Scratch that, it’s not just simple — it’s fundamental. I love Rob Walsh. He makes me feel better about parliamentary democracy, simply by existing.
4:13:09 PM
Over to Team Government, and Saxton, who feels sorry for the department, which is just following the legal advice that it got from departmental lawyers, and who wants to remind us all that the business plan – and the proposed procurement changes that were the subject of these consultations – is *not* relevant to this meeting.
He then gives Meredith the opportunity to explain how her officials went about contacting participants to ask for consent, and she does so. Google was involved, unsurprisingly, and eventually, most were found to have already been public, or did grant their consent, but five did not. She recalls that the *actual* editing was a bit of a challenge – they had to turn to National Defence for assistance, she tells the committee – and Saxton once again lauds her department for its efforts in pursuit of privacy protection.

4:17:18 PM
Sexton wonders if the participants were informed that they were being taped – ITQ certainly hopes so; if they weren’t, we’d have a much bigger breech of privacy laws on our hands – and she says they were, but only in the context of having some comments used in the preparation of a report. If they had been told that these were *public* consultations, she notes, the department wouldn’t have had to get consent.

4:19:05 PM
The chair is just in the midst of explaining to the committee why *he* agrees with Walsh, and every other counsel and parliamentary expert that the committee consulted on this issue, and John Weston pops up to express some uncertainty over the appropriateness of the chair “providing legal advice” to the committee. Which he wasn’t really doing, was he?

Stensholt does, however, take the potentially unwise step of attempting to argue parliamentary law with Walsh, although she comes up with one possibly good point: It is the *House* that has the power to compel production; committees can only order that it be produced, and yes, there *is* a difference.

Walsh neatly counters her point by pointing out that actually, it’s the House that punishes if an order is not complied with. Stensholt smiles pointedly and says that this might be something on which they’ll have to “agree to disagree”, which seems foolhardy, given that Walsh is THE LAW CLERK.
4:26:50 PM
Both Kramp and Saxton express deep concern over the possibility that the secret thoughts and dreams of small business may be revealed to a cruel and judgmental world, and suggest that they simply go in camera and listen to the missing minutes – or seconds, if you believe the department. No harm, no foul. Findlay doesn’t disagree, but reminds the committee that, as MPs, they could have attended the consultations in person, and heard everything that was said without all this bother of taping and editing and deleting. Which seems sensible enough. Murphy agrees that this *should* have been handled in a much less ridiculous way — the unaltered tapes should have been handed over to Parliament, and the committee would have handled it from there. It’s all about the principle.

4:31:48 PM
Oh, and speaking of principle, Christopherson has a motion that would allow the department to rethink its original decision, give the committee all the tapes, unaltered, and leave the matter to the committee to deal with the privacy concerns however it sees fit.

4:35:21 PM
Everyone seems to be in agreement with Christopherson’s motion — some slightly more reluctant than others, by the looks on their faces, but it passes unanimously.

The chair gives Meredith a moment to give her closing statement – enough with the prepared statements already, committee chairs – and she takes up most of her allotted time patting herself and her department on the back for its speed in responding to the committee’s request.

And that’s it — for this portion of the meeting, which is the only reason why ITQ came all the way over here in the rain, and for committee liveblogging for the foreseeable future. That is, unless we have another round of special summertime hearings — or the blue-ribbon panel decides to throw the doors open to the press. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of other fodder for the ITQ berry — we’ll try liveblogging almost *anything* once.