View From the Hill by Keith Beardsley – Partisanship over Citizenship – June 4, 2010 – Cornwall Ontario

Cornwall ON – The chaos that erupted at the Government Operations committee yesterday reflects badly on all parliamentarians. Anyone who watches the whole video will be left wondering why we elected these MPs in the first place.

John Baird can be a fine parliamentary performer and his award yesterday as Parliamentarian of the Year is fully justified. However, yesterday was not his finest hour.   Unfortunately, the Liberal Chair, Yasmin Ratansi needs more time to brush up on her rights as Chair and reread the rules before the next meeting too.

Let’s not forget the heart of the matter- should a committee have the right to call staff as witnesses. I would suggest they do, although I am sure many would disagree. Certainly in the past they have called former lower level bureaucrats and former political staff to testify. Chuck Guite and Warren Kinsella are a couple of examples. They testified when committees were investigating the sponsorship scandal in 2004-2005.  The key of course is that these were former staff and the ministers argue that they are the ones responsible for the actions of their present staff.

Also, the government feels their young staffers should not be exposed to the risks of testifying before the committee, yet this country doesn’t hesitate to put young men their age into much greater danger in war time. They are young enough to fight, but to young to take some verbal tongue lashings from a committee.

I sympathize with these staffers. Even if they wanted to show up, they can’t disobey their political bosses and yet they are the ones who will carry the stigma of this with them for the rest of their lives. Few in the public realize that not only can a parliamentary committee subpoena you to appear, but failure to do so can result in a fine or imprisonment. In 1913 the last person to be imprisoned (for refusing to testify at the Public Accounts committee) sat in jail for four months. Wouldn’t you want to be a 20 something former staffer looking for work while being known as the one who went to jail for refusing to testify? Now wouldn’t that make a fine addition to your resume?

Partisanship has its place in politics but at this time it’s best for everyone to step back, take a deep breath and look at the potential consequences. Perhaps the solution would be for the committee to delay calling these witnesses until outside independent legal opinion is sought. At least then it should be clear as to who is right in this case.

In the meantime partisanship wins and citizens lose.

Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails.

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