Liveblogging the Agriculture Committee – We join this three way stare-down between the union, the government and the opposition already in progress

UPDATE: Hey, look, it’s yesterday’s government talking points in convenient press release format!

Instead of placeholder text, an explanation: I should warn y’all upfront that the ITQ coverage of today’s hearing – which starts at 8am, and here’s a link to yesterday’s liveblog, which has the full back story – will be a little bit unorthodox.

Due to a standing prior commitment on Tuesday mornings, I won’t be there for the start of the meeting, but will endeavour. mightily to make it to Wellington Building as. soon as possible after that –I hope by 8:20 or so, but that all depends on how fast I can move once I’m out the door. (Yes, Wellington Building – despite those sugar-sweet beseechings from Wayne Easter, who wanted today’s festivities to be televised, it’s the Committee Room At The End of the Universe for us.)

Anyway, my apologies, in advance, to readers, witnesses, committee members and hangers-on. Better late than no liveblogging at all, right?

(Rather than zap this text, I’m going to leave it up for the duration so that latecomers don’t wonder why there’s nothing from the first part of the meeting. When the liveblog begins, updates will appear below.)

8:03:27 AM
I’m here – three minutes late but seventeen minutes before I thought I’d make it, so let’s call it a draw. The meeting, in fact, has yet to get underway, so we haven’t missed a thing. I actually arrived as an accidental member of Larry Miller’s entourage – he was heading upstairs (and down the hall and around a corner and past the three-headed gorgon that guards this lonely corner of the parliamentary universe), so I just followed him up, head down and blackberry-blind. If he’d wanted to do so, he could have walked me straight down an elevator shaft, but he didn’t, so here I am.

They’re doing a soundcheck at the moment, although the Conservative mics certainly seem to be working – they’re sniping at Wayne Easter yet again.

8:08:39 AM
The witnesses today, I should note, are Chris Roberts and Michele Demers from the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and they are here at the invitation of opposition MPs, who, presumably, expect them to condemn both the now infamous secret memo on potential cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as well as the treatment of the scientist who sent the union the document that eventually found its way to CanWest.

I wish they had breakfast here.

Eve-Marie Thai Thi Lac. That’s the rather adorable Bloc Quebecois MP whose name completely escaped me last night, by the way. Otherwise, it’s all the same players as were on stage last night.

8:11:35 AM
Wayne Easter has a point of order, y’all – he’s mad about the minister’s statement last night — which is linked from the top of this post, but didn’t seem to make the real news media — at least, not yet. Anyway, Easter wants it on the record that he’s “not exactly impressed” with the release, particularly the reference to the carbon tax, and asks the clerk for a copy of Turning The Corner, the government’s proposal for an even more expensive, yet non-transparent carbon tax.

Brian Storseth, meanwhile, takes issue with *Easter’s* press release, which compared the food safety system to “Russian roulette.”

Okay, c’mon, guys. Of course you don’t agree with each other’s press releases. It would be worth bringing up if you did. Can we hear from the witnesses now?

Paul Dewar, meanwhile, says that he’s also unimpressed by what he heard from agency officials – he’s hoping there will be more answers today.

Oh, and Lloyd St. Amand doesn’t understand how the minister can have had time to issue a press release, but not distribute the document that the committee has requested.

8:17:45 AM
And now, the witnesses, and I should warn you all that I will have to leave the room briefly between 8:40 and 9am. All part of those aforementioned prior standing commitments – can’t be helped. I’ll try to make up for it when I get back — and if any commenters are a) extant and b) have access to the audio of the meeting, feel free to spell me off at that point.

Okay, with that out of the way, Michele Demers is distressed by what she heard at the meeting yesterday from the agency. This document was handed over to the union by a scientist last November, and was secret at the time but was “left lying around negligently” on the agency computers. (Was it actually on the internet, or the intranet? I know, I shouldn’t have to ask, but I sort of stumbled backwards into covering this story and am not completely caught up.)

She implores the committee not to make a judgment on the document until they see it for themselves – it is their responsibility.

8:23:09 AM
Why, she wonders, is the government so reluctant to release the document months after the last budget? As for the allegation that critics of the proposals are “fear mongering”, she points out that these are scientists – experts. This is the opposite of fear mongering. Delicious anticipation mongering? I think that may have been lost in translation. Anyway, she says she’s ready to help the committee as much as possible by suggesting witnesses, and preparing a proper submission. Oh, and they hope to be summoned again, so they can give more specific information.

The other witness – Charles Roberts – also exhorts the committee to read the document — yeah, they’ll get on that as soon as the minister finds the time to photocopy it himself, by hand. I’m assuming the opposition members will propose a second motion setting a timeline for the production of that particular document later today.

Roberts is going over much of the same ground, although with more focus on the actual food safety risks. The FDA, he notes, lost the scientific capacity to fulfill its mission because of constant cutbacks. In the wake of recent incidents of food taintage – peppers, spinach – the US congress has moved to strengthen a regulatory framework that is universally agreed to be in disrepair.

8:30:36 AM
Question time! I’ll have to miss some of Wayne Easter’s opening round, but will stick around for the beginning — he tells the witnesses that the committee has indeed asked for the document, although there is now “some concern” that it may be denied. He wants to make it clear that the concern is not with the agency itself, despite what government members may claim. This is about a Prime Minister who doesn’t believe in governing, but in decentralizing and downloading responsibilities to the provinces. That’s his modus operandi, which is why these cuts set off alarm bells for the opposition.

The CFIA officials who appeared yesterday, he notes, were in a difficult position since they couldn’t actually answer many of the questions, so he has one thing to ask the current witnesses right up front – does the document exist? It does, says Demers – she read it, and was very disturbed by it, but returned it to the agency once she realized that it was secret. Those officials, she says, couldn’t speak out against the proposals – they’re afraid of being turfed just like the scientist who sent it to her. “But they can’t turf me.” Really? Is that actually true? Surely a Keening is possible, even if by Becket approach. Will no one rid the government of this meddlesome bureaucrat?

8:36:51 AM
Okay, I’m out for ten minutes or so. Let me know if I miss anything good.

8:45:36 AM
I’m now lurking at the back of the room following my radio hit – yes, that’s what I was doing, if you’ve been dying of curiosity. One down, one to go – and then I can devote myself entirely to food safety.

8:47:10 AM
I made it in for the tail end of the Bloc Quebecois’ round, which once again led to discussion of those dreaded poison peppers
In the United States, but now it’s time for Brian Storseth, who begins by challenging Demers’ credentials – she’s a former social worker, not a scientist. He takes issue with the timeline she gave as far as the leak and the budget, and then brings up loyalty – loyalty of a public servant to his or her employers. Which would be the people of Canada, incidentally, not any one particular government, but never mind – Storseth wants to know if she has proof of cuts to the agency budget – as far as he can see, the funding was increased.

Demers argues that money is being reallocated to areas other than inspection.

Storseth rather snottily asks if she’s saying that based on her experience as a scientist, and points to the comments from the CFIA officials last night, who assured the committee that there were no cuts to inspections.

Demers points out that this employer wasn’t, in fact, a whistleblower — he didn’t go to the press or release the document publicly; he went to his union. “With a secret cabinet document,” adds Storseth, who then gives an impassioned defence of the need for cabinet secrecy.

Lots of grumbling from the opposition benches at that.

Storseth, however, gets Demers to confirm that this is not a case of whistleblowing, which is why the new protections wouldn’t apply to this employee. He just went to his union for advice.

Wait, how did it get into the hands of the media? Do we know that?

9:02:25 AM
Okay, last interruption over – I’ll be in my seat for the rest of the meeting, and not scampering out the door just when things are getting good.

9:03:46 AM
Second round – five minutes – and Ken Boshkoff is up for the Liberals. He was part of the committee that studied the last proposal for whistleblowing protection, and he can’t understand why this scientist was fired. Demers reiterates her position that this was not, in fact, whistleblowing – he went to his union, not the public.

Is that a danger, wonders Boshkoff – allowing scientists to be muzzled and fired without recourse? Demers agrees. “What happened to freedom of speech?”

Boshkoff notes that farmers are concerned about the existing regulatory regime, particularly for imports. How will we – the committee, but also the public – know that farmers are “on the same playing field” without knowing the details of these cuts? Demers doesn’t know.

9:09:13 AM
Ken Boshkoff is sure that the minister will be hand-delivering copies of the document any minute now. Nobody – including ITQ – turns to look at the door to see if he’s right.

Larry Miller wants to know just how many copies of this document were made – eventually, it transpires that it was sent to the veterinary unit, as well as other experts, with the result that at least twenty copies were made.

He then wonders whether she has to stand by her people, no matter what they d, and she tells him that it’s her responsibility to defend her members – but the union doesn’t defend all cases.

Now he has a yes or no question – is there any evidence that cabinet has dealt with this issue since 2007, and how on earth would she know that? Easter suggests that the chair remind the witnesses that they can answer questions as they say fit, and don’t have to be “badgered.”

Back to the question – does she have an answer – yes or no? She tries to explain that she only saw the letter, but Miller keeps haranguing her for a yes or no answer. Eventually, she gets frustrated and tells him she won’t answer the question.

9:14:45 AM
Oh, good – now the chair is taking the opposite position from yesterday, when he was adamant that public servants shouldn’t be forced to answer questions about policy matters. Now, he’s all about forcing this particular witness to reply, because she’s not a public servant: She just *represents* public servants.

9:16:21 AM
Paul Dewar complains that the government members aren’t writing their own questions, but just reading from a PMO-issued script, a suggestion to which Miller takes great offence, but doesn’t deny.

The chair – James Bezan, for the record, and a Conservative – hustles things along, and after a few more hostile exchanges between Miller and Demers, his time runs out.

9:18:46 AM
Eve-Marie is now up for the Bloc, and she kicks her five minutes off with a bang – or a scream – not a whimper, describing the current environment within the public service as a “regime of terror.” What’s better, a culture of corruption, or a regime of terror, I wonder.

Eventually, she gets back to job losses, which is the same thing she asked about last night, but Demers has a slightly different answer than the agency – looking at the document (which nobody in this room can do), she doesn’t see how there wouldn’t be job losses.

9:23:05 AM
Andre Bellavance reminds us all of past expulsions of public servants, from the Wheat Board on, while Maxime Bernier was allowed to keep his job for weeks. This employee, he avers, acted with complete transparency and integrity.

Demers wants to know why the document was labelled ‘Confidential’ – only the cover page had a stamp – and it was circulated to numerous agency officials. Is that really official, she wonders. Whose fault is it that it was eventually leaked?

9:25:25 AM
Ed Komarnicki reminds Demers that he’s the parliamentarian and she’s the union leader, so he doesn’t cotton to her chattering on about policy – he reserves that right for himself.

Demers looks annoyed. Meanwhile, Komarnicki is trying to suggest that she – Demers – somehow mishandled the document, which she *knew* was confidential. She should have brought it to the attention of the employer – ie CFIA – and nobody else. Oh, and secure documents, he says, are supposed to be on a secure network. True, Demers confirms, but that obviously wasn’t the case here. Ooh, point to Demers.

Basically, the government members are trying to turn this around on the union, and make this all about its conduct, and not the substance of the document itself.

9:30:42 AM
Demers is giving as good as she’s getting from PMO – er, Komarnicki, who is going into full cross-examination mode, and is trying to get her to admit that she passed the document around despite knowing that it was confidential.

9:32:34 AM
This is getting meta – Easter just read a letter from parliamentary services apologizing that the meeting is not, in fact, being broadcast live. He wants to make sure there will be an audio recording and transceipts, and the chair assures him that the committee will do so.

“We’re not even being broadcast on the internet,” muses Miller.

Well, actually, you are – just not directly. Liveblogging – suddenly, we’re the public record, at least until the transcripts go up.

Oh, the broadcast is*within the precinct, just not outside the parliamentary universe.

9:35:42 AM
Carolyn Bennett notes that Roberts looks like he has something to say in addition to Demers’ monosyllabic replies to Komarnicki’s hectoring, and he notes that this process is underway. I think he means the union’s response to the firing of the scientist, not the handling of confidential documents.

9:38:35 AM
Carolyn Bennett asks a very, very long question that ends with a saucy request: since the minister seems unable to provide the document in question, can she table it so that the committee can finally read it? Alas, she no longer has a copy – she ordered the destruction of every one that the union had. It would up to the agency or the government to hand it over.

As for the potential risks of deregulation, relative to what happened in the United States when similar cuts were made to the inspection program there, she suggests the committee look into the “longstanding issue” between the agency and veterinarians over signing off on meat without having inspected it directly. She isn’t a scientist, but she represents scientists, and they’ve brought this up.

“I’m not supposed to be the watchdog for CFIA,” she notes. Yet here she is.

Wait, who *is* supposed to be the watchdog for the CFIA? The Auditor General, I guess.

9:42:58 AM
And now, Dean del Mastro returns to the thrilling topic of the confidentiality agreements that public servants sign – in fact, that Demers would have signed. She reminds him that the dismissal of this scientist is before the board right now, so this isn’t the right place to agree it. Del Mastro takes her demurral as confirmation of his claim that public servants must always protect the public trust.

He then slips up, and asks if the material would still be confidential if the pages weren’t stamped, but the cover had been, but was ripped off or otherwise removed. No, actually – according to protocol, every page has to be stamped.

Finally, Demers tells him that this is the first time she’s met Easter, which del Mastro tries to turn into a contradiction to his claim the previous day to have spoken with the union. Turns out he said, and she confirms that he spoke with people in her office. And finally – finally! – mention of the carbon tax. I was beginning to worry that it would never come up.

9:48:45 AM
St. Amand asks whether Demers and Roberts know the scientist – Luc Pomerleau, and apologies for almost certainly misspelling that name, and they both say that they do. In response to an open-ender, she gives a thumbnail profile – no history of disciplinary problems, two kids, sole provider — not an “alarmist,” suggests St. Amand.

Boshkoff wonders if he sees this as an attempt to follow in the footsteps of the American deregulation of the system, and after a dozen qualifications and caveats, Roberts agrees that it is.

Would the end result be the compromising of Canadian food safety? That’s a legitimate concern, he says.

9:52:54 AM
Fifteen seconds for Wayne Easter, and he uses it to ask Demers for a list of potential witnesses; the committee will look into ways to ensure they’re protected from repercussions, he says. She will.

9:53:50 AM
The meeting is nearly over, but Bennett has one more request – a copy of the governmental protocol on confidential documents. Anyone, she points out, can write ‘Confidential’ on a document.

9:54:57 AM
Paul Dewar asks the chair again for a more specific timeline for production of the document, and he has a motion to speed things up – it would require the document to be delivered to committee members within 24 hours.

Unfortunately, he also needs unanimous consent to introduce it without 48 hours notice, which he doesn’t get.

Bezan is now lecturing the committee on – no, this can’t be – “respect for the chair.” I – have nothing to add to that.

Del Mastro claims that, by destroying copies of the document, the union implicitly confirmed that it was confidential. Or they were worried that this government would come down on them like a hammer if given even the slightest opportunity to do so.

And that’s that. Not sure when and if they’ll meet again, but as long as I’m not outside the Queensway, I’ll be here.

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