Feds still haven’t moved on opening up secretive Commons Board of Internal Economy

The Canadian Values Party will NEVER spend a dime that should not be spent and when it is, the public will have full access to knowing where and why. No more cute little calendars in your mailbox to pre-promote a politician in preparation for a future election, while wasting your hard earned tax dollars.



Meanwhile, the NDP’s court battle with the BOIE has resumed, with two days worth of hearings slated to begin on Sept. 13.

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Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc has indicated legislation will be introduced to amend the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy and open up meetings, but there’s still no word of when that will happen, or how meetings will be opened to public scrutiny. The Hill Times Photograph by Jake Wright



The Liberal government committed to opening up meetings of the powerful and secretive House of Commons Board of Internal Economy during the 2015 campaign, but six months into its mandate, there’s still no word on when or how this will happen.

The latest minutes released from the House management board are from a Dec. 10, 2015 meeting.

Former House law clerk Rob Walsh said it’s an “old question,” though the campaign commitment has “raised expectations” that this will actually happen.

“There’s a general expectation in the public that they’re entitled to know what their representatives are doing when they spend public dollars, so it’s a moral right, if you like, or political expectation that this will not be hidden from them,” Mr. Walsh told The Hill Times last week.

He said the idea of opening up access to this board “been around a long time. The only difference now is you have a party that made a commitment in its campaign, and now it’s in government, so I think it’s raised expectations amongst those who think the board should open up its meetings, and we’ll have to just wait and see.”

Past controversy over the NDP’s use of Parliament-funded Householders (information pamphlets sent by MPs to constituents a few times a year) and its use of Parliamentary funds for offices outside Ottawa was called a “sham process” by the NDP, said Mr. Walsh, but with BOIE meetings and deliberations entirely in camera, “How was one to know whether there’s any merit to that accusation or not?”

The NDP was ultimately ordered by the board to repay millions of dollars to Parliament, but MPs and leader Tom Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) spoke out strongly against the decision, repeatedly calling it partisan and the BOIE a “kangaroo court.”

That decision is now being challenged in court by the NDP, with two days of hearings scheduled starting Sept. 13. A shorter hearing on whether an affidavit filed as evidence should be thrown out is scheduled for May 13. Previously, this challenge was suspended to try and find an out-of-court settlement, but that was lifted following a request from the board’s lawyer last year after talks failed.

Mr. Walsh said opening up the BOIE would not require legislation.

“There’s nothing in the Parliament of Canada Act that requires the board to meet behind closed doors,” he said. “The board itself could just decide they’re not going to meet behind closed doors anymore. But they would want to have consultations with the other parties, I think, and come to an agreement as to how much will be done in public.”

He added that legislative changes would be needed to make an open-door policy at the board mandatory.

During the 2015 election, the Liberals committed to “end the secrecy surrounding the Board of Internal Economy—the group responsible for regulating spending by Members of Parliament.”

“Except in rare cases requiring confidentiality, meetings of this group will be open to the public,” reads the party platform.

The Board of Internal Economy (BOIE) is the governing body of the House of Commons and is responsible for deciding both financial and administrative matters. It allocates and sets the budgets for MPs and House officers, sets the rules (bylaws and policies) around proper use of parliamentary funds, and decides whether those rules have been broken. In this role, MPs on the board oversee the House of Commons’ $463.6-million budget for 2016-17, as indicated in the main estimates.

The BOIE meets entirely in camera and is made up of members from all political parties in the House with least 12 sitting members, and reflects the balance of seats in the House. The board meets “approximately every second week when the House is sitting,” according to its website.

House Speaker Geoff Regan (Halifax West, N.S.) now chairs the Board, which includes Liberal Whip Andrew Leslie (Orléans, Ont.), Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, N.B.), Public Services Minister Judy Foote (Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, N.L.), Conservative Whip Gord Brown (Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, Ont.), Conservative MP Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.), and NDP MP Peter Julian (New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C.).

The Senate expense scandal “contributed to a broader public perception of wanting more transparency in how public funds are spent, and it’s all part of that same broad interest in greater transparency, that there’s a sense that the Board of Internal Economy should conduct its meeting in open session,” said Mr. Walsh.

In 2013, during the last Parliament, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee launched a study to review the BOIE and consider opening it up to the public following an NDP motion. The resulting committee report did not recommend opening up meetings. It was a Conservative-dominated committee, and both the Liberals and the NDP filed dissenting reports.

During the study, a number of different ways to open up BOIE meetings to the public were discussed, including looking at the U.K.’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority or the possibility of creating new BOIE subcommittees to discuss sensitive topics.

Mr. LeBlanc was not available for an interview with The Hill Times last week. In response to emailed questions about the BOIE, his office said the minister is “still working with his department” and will “make announcements in due course. As with every measure being considered by the House leader, he will discuss with caucus and opposition colleagues.”

“In the previous Parliament, the law clerk has given advice to members of the board that they would potentially be breaching the Parliament of Canada Act, contrary to [what] others may have suggested,” read the email in response to a note highlighting the argument that there’s nothing in the act preventing the BOIE from choosing itself to hold meetings in public.

In response to followup questions seeking more details and clarification, Mr. LeBlanc’s office said “at this time” it had “no additional comments.”

On Feb. 24, Mr. LeBlanc appeared before the Senate Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament Committee and indicated the government may seek to amend the BOIE along with other changes requiring amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act, namely changes to strengthen the Parliamentary Budget Office and legislative amendments related to the functioning of the Senate, as part of one bill.

“Then we could pass effectively and efficiently a piece of legislation that would meet the objectives of both [Chambers],” he said.

Mr. LeBlanc and Mr. Brown are the “appointed spokespeople” for the Board. Last week when The Hill Times called to request an interview with Mr. Brown, his office at first indicated he was not able to speak about the Board and did not seem aware he had been appointed a spokesperson. He ultimately did not respond to the interview request.

The BOIE cites Standing Order 37(2)—which says simply that only designated spokespeople can respond to oral questions about the board’s work during Question Period. The BOIE’s parliamentary website notes these spokespeople respond to both QP questions “and to enquiries from media.” The media section of the website, however, directs questions to the House Speaker’s director of communications, who does not sit in on board meeting. Since last Parliament, the board has specified that only these spokespeople can discuss decisions of the board.

MPs often cite the board’s “oath of secrecy” in declining to even give opinions about board decisions, and in many cases when asked to give opinions on whether the BOIE should be opened up.

That oath of secrecy, which every board member has to swear and is included in the Parliament of Canada Act, “only relates to matters of security, employment, and staff relations, tenders and investigations in relations to a member of the House of Commons,” and to sharing documents related to Board business, as described in the act.

The BOIE meeting minutes are now posted online (since last Parliament), but they’re made public with months-long delays. For example, until March 11, the most recent meeting minutes available were from June 2015. Now, minutes from the Dec. 10, 2015, meeting are the most recently available. Those minutes indicate the BOIE made a decision to grant the Government House Leader a new, $100,000 annual budget, for example, among other things, but there’s no indication of the deliberations that led to this.

“They’re much too slow at posting the minutes, and the minutes ought to be more informative too,” said Mr. Walsh.

The Senate Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee, which has come under the public spotlight in recent years due to its decision-making role in the Senate expense scandal and resulting audits, has for years been more open to the public than its House counterpart. While it typically meets in camera, on occasion it holds public meetings—like most recently when it discussed the request for Senate Government Representative Peter Harder’s for an $850,000 budget. At times, it has also published transcripts of meetings.

Mr. Julian told The Hill Times last week that he had no indication of the government’s plans on opening up the BOIE, but welcomed action on the commitment. He said he’s “looking for more transparency” and said opening up the BOIE “means not only looking at current decisions but past decisions.”

“The important issue is for transparency: how does the BOIE function? How are decisions taken? Are decisions taken in an equitable way towards all Members of Parliament and all political parties? Those are the kinds of questions I think people often ask,” he said.

Reference

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