Mr. Harper, Release the election “rule book” for ministers before you drop the writ

UPDATE August 4, 2015

For a comparison of the new, public and old, non-public document, see this blog post and for another perspective today, see this blog by Michael Geist

UPDATE: August 3, 2015

The Privy Council Office has just made a public release of the new document entitled, Guidelines on the Conduct of Ministers, Ministers of State, Exempt Staff and Public Servants During an Election“. I had been drawing attention to this on social media in the last few days, since the news of the impending election campaign, and I am glad that it has been done. This action fulfills my motion M-286 tabled in the House on October 28, 2011.

 

In October 2011, following a recommendation from constitutional scholars, I tabled my first private members motion in the House of Commons which called on the government to make public a heretofore secret document with guidelines on how cabinet ministers should restrain using their powers during an election. Four years later, with perhaps just a few days before a start to the next  federal election, I am once again calling on the government to release a document which outlines what is appropriate conduct of ministers during an election. Here is the text of my original motion:

M-286 — October 28, 2011 — Mr. Hsu (Kingston and the Islands) — That, in the opinion of the House, the government should make public the document regarding guidelines on the conduct of ministers, secretaries of state, exempt staff and public servants during an election, and maintain the public nature of this document.

Because of an Access to Information Request from a researcher in 2011, we were able to get a look at the restricted 2008 version of this document.

image from 2008 Guidelines document

The document with guidelines for the conduct of ministers during an election is secret, unlike other Westminster democracies.

 

 

Today I am requesting that the updated document become publically accessible before the writ is dropped. I would also note that similar documents are made public in other countries with our parliamentary system, such as New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom.

So why is this so important?

Clear guidelines for the conduct of ministers during an election are needed to follow the Caretaker Convention. The idea behind this convention is simple.  The government of the day, namely ministers and their staff, only have powers with the consent of we, the people, through our elected representatives – Members of Parliament. In an election period, Parliament is dissolved, and the oversight provided by MPs is gone. Just as importantly, government resources and ministerial powers must not be used to support an election campaign. Therefore, it is traditional for ministers to restrain the use of their powers during an election and to avoid using their position for partisan advantage. In other words, to act only as limited Caretakers of their respective ministries.

The need for a publically accessible rule book on the conduct of Ministers has been reinforced by the record of this Conservative government in blurring – and occasionally completely ignoring – the rules about separating government and partisan activities. In one recent and particularly blatant example, Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre wore a Conservative t-shirt while speaking at a press conference announcing the Government of Canada’s Universal Child-Care Benefit.

In another noteworthy case, government resources went into preparing a template that was used by an individual MP’s staff to promote himself and a government program in his press release – breaching the wall that is supposed to exist between government and parliamentary resources. And of course we are all familiar with the government’s Economic Action Plan advertisements, which over the past nine years have used millions of taxpayer dollars to shamelessly promote the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party.

These actions are not normally forbidden, but during an election campaign, to ensure fairness and democracy it is very important to not use the power of government to help one party or candidate over another.  For example, in 2011 there was some confusion over whether Conservative Minister Vic Toews should have gone ahead with a ministerial announcement during the election campaign (as reported by the Winnipeg Free Press).

Canadians deserve to know what the rules are, and to hold the government to account if they are not following them. Join me in calling on the government to honour this simple request that will help make the next election more open and transparent.

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2 Comments. Leave new

[…] In previous elections, this document was not publicly released, leading Liberal MP Ted Hsu to table a motion in 2011 calling for its availability and to recent op-eds raising the same […]

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[…] In previous elections, this document was not publicly released, leading Liberal MP Ted Hsu to table a motion in 2011 calling for its availability and to recent op-eds raising the same […]

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