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Statements and Speeches

Appearance of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Before the
Standing Committee on
Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
on Bill C-520, An Act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament

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February 25, 2014

Thank you, Mr. Chair, for inviting me to address the Committee today. Let me start by saying I am in agreement with the remarks that have just been made by my colleague, the Auditor General. He has identified several important aspects of Bill C-520 which I also believe are worthy of careful review by this Committee.

I can assure you that I too, as an agent of Parliament, am deeply committed to the principle and the practice of political neutrality. This principle is fundamental to the administration of the Canada Elections Act and is absolutely central to the performance of my mandate.

Each agent of Parliament is unique. In my case, given my role administering electoral events and regulating the activities of political participants, the need for political neutrality is particularly acute. Indeed, the Elections Canada Code of Conduct imposes on employees an obligation to observe strict political neutrality at the federal, provincial and territorial levels, not only in the exercise of their functions and duties but also in their activities outside work. Letters of offer to employees detail these conditions of employment regarding political neutrality.

These stringent requirements reflect my conviction that everyone working at Elections Canada, no matter their position, must remain and be seen to remain neutral at all times. The objective of maintaining neutrality in the organization would not be achieved by allowing even a small number of employees to engage in political activity, no matter how limited, at the federal, provincial or territorial level.

I believe it is consistent with what Canadians would expect of the people who work for the country's national electoral body. We can take no risks in threatening the confidence of electors and political stakeholders in the administration of the electoral process. Similar conditions have been placed on employees at Elections Canada since long before I became Chief Electoral Officer, and to my knowledge there have never been any concerns expressed inside the organization about this.

In light of our Code of Conduct, the restrictions on political activity imposed by Bill C-520 would not have much effect on Elections Canada employees, with one significant exception. The obligation in clause 11 of the bill to publish on our website the past "politically partisan positions" of staff over the last 10 years would be new. I see this unnecessary requirement as a serious infringement of the privacy of employees and incompatible with the principle of merit when hiring staff.

It is unclear from my reading of Bill C-520 whether it is intended to apply to contractors with agents of Parliament as well as employees. The bill refers to a person who "works" or "occupies a position" in the office of an agent of Parliament. In any event, in cases where Elections Canada directly procures services, and where delivery of those services might raise a reasonable concern regarding political impartiality, contractors are subject to an obligation to avoid political activities for the term of the contract. In fact, suppliers who cannot certify their ability to adhere to this obligation will not be issued a contract.

Finally, you should be aware that key election officers are also severely limited in their ability to engage in political activity. The Canada Elections Act itself makes it an offence for a returning officer to engage in "politically partisan conduct". Of course this is not surprising. In addition, clause 5 of the Code of Professional Conduct for Election Administrators restricts returning officers from engaging in political activity at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. This is different from employees and contractors, who are not restricted from political activity at the municipal level; but in light of the work being conducted by returning officers locally, I felt it was important to add this additional restriction for them.

As a last point, I would also like to comment on clause 9 of the bill, which would allow members of the Senate or House of Commons to make a complaint regarding political behaviour on the part of my staff. The Auditor General already touched on this provision in his remarks. It should be noted that even without this bill, anyone who wishes to make a complaint about political activity on the part of those who work for agents of Parliament can do so, and there are mechanisms in place to deal with such complaints. For my part, I would like to underline my accountability for the conduct of those in the organization I run. Should there be any concern regarding the conduct of my staff, it is my role to appear before Parliament to account.

That concludes my introductory remarks. I have also provided to the Clerk copies of the Elections Canada Code of Conduct and the Code of Professional Conduct for Election Administrators. I would be happy to take your questions.