Aides lose their tongues

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Mon Jun 07 2010

For the second time this year, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are putting themselves above Parliament. This time, political aides are refusing to appear before House of Commons committees, even dodging the bailiffs who are trying to serve summonses on them.

The government’s latest strategy is to shield its senior political staff from scrutiny by MPs on the dubious grounds that these are media-shy, twenty-something greenhorns who might get flustered in the glare of committee lights. Never mind that many of these staffers earn six-figure salaries to plot political strategy at the highest levels. One witness running for cover is prime ministerial spokesperson Dimitri Soudas, whose day job is spinning Harper’s press lines.

Pinch-hitting in their place are warhorses such as Transport Minister John Baird, who crashed one of the hearings last week. Offering himself up as a mouthpiece for the political staff, he claimed this shows fidelity to the principle of ministerial responsibility.

That’s a flimsy recourse to a parliamentary tradition that the Conservatives ignore when it suits their purposes. It’s not for the Harper government to rewrite the rules of Parliament on a whim, nor to offer substitute speakers on an ad hoc basis.

There is a long tradition of committees summoning government bureaucrats to lend their expertise to hearings. And MPs have every right to insist that a ministerial aide be accountable for matters about which they have direct knowledge. There is plenty of precedent for political staff being called to testify, most recently when Harper’s chief of staff, Guy Giorno, appeared at a committee hearing earlier this year.

As the government grudgingly acknowledged in the last showdown over the release of diplomatic cables from Afghanistan, it is for elected parliamentarians to decide Parliament’s business, not a matter for ministerial fiat. Time to unmuzzle the PM’s mouthpiece.

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