OTTAWA - Opposition MPs say it's time for Parliament to take a critical look at the politicization of the public service following the latest example of a Conservative minister overstepping the bounds of bureaucratic neutrality.
Two provocatively partisan letters by Julian Fantino, the minister responsible for the Canadian International Development Agency, were pulled from CIDA's website late Tuesday after they raised a stir on social media.
A spokesman for the minister said the two letters — which attacked the NDP and Liberals, respectively — were posted "in error" by departmental officials and that bureaucrats had been asked to remove them immediately.
To reinforce the point, the director general of CIDA's communications branch was proactively calling media outlets Wednesday to apologize for what he called a "genuine mistake" by his staff.
"They're all communication professionals who are keenly aware of the comms policy," Andrew Frenette told The Canadian Press.
Frenette, a civil servant, said Fantino has been on a communications drive — "out there telling a story on development" — and staff were too hasty in posting all the material online.
"The volume was quite significant and it was like a machine, they just posted these things. It's quite regrettable; should never, ever have happened."
Opposition MPs are not buying it.
"Leave it to the Conservatives to ring in the New Year by breaking guidelines and wasting government resources on partisan attacks," Charlie Angus, the NDP ethics critic, said in a release.
Liberal MP John McCallum, a former cabinet minister, formally requested that the Commons committee on government operations examine the issue.
"This is not the first instance of government resources being used directly for specifically partisan purposes," McCallum wrote in an open letter to the committee chairman.
He added that "it is clear that parliamentarians may have a different understanding of what constitutes 'political activity' than what the rules allow."
In fact there have been a litany of complaints since the Conservatives came to office in 2006, among them several past instances of inflammatory partisan material posted on government websites.
Fantino's letters — described on Twitter as "an egregious blurring of partisan invective (with) neutrality of civil service," by Queen's political scientist Jonathan Rose — are again pushing the issue to prominence.
One letter ripped the NDP for taking its "reckless economic sideshow to the developing world," while another attacked a Liberal MP critic for making "an incoherent and inconsistent argument centred on myths."
That kind of politicking is forbidden in the detailed Government of Canada communications rules that are supposed to be enforced by Treasury Board.
And it's an issue that keeps recurring.
Departmental news releases continue to describe actions by the "Harper Government" despite widespread, documented concerns by civil servants that the branding breaches communications policy.
In at least one major federal department, bureaucrats privately complain they have been instructed to communicate only orally with the minister's office — apparently in order to avoid leaving email trails that could demonstrate evidence of partisanship.
Liberals groused last fall that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was using his department's taxpayer-funded media monitoring service to rate his image in ethnic reporting.
In January 2010, a Justice Department release on the appointment of Conservative senators bore the headline: "New Senators to help end opposition obstruction to law-and-order bills" — prompting a Liberal letter of complaint to Wayne Wouters, the Clerk of the Privy Council who heads the civil service.
In 2009, Fisheries and Oceans posted a harangue that accused the Liberals of having a "hidden agenda" on the seal hunt.
Minister Gail Shea wound up telling a Senate committee the partisan news release was "an administrative error and should never have happened."
"I am not sure if the bill for the press release has gone to the Conservative Party of Canada, because I do not have that information, but that is who the bill was to go to," Shea told the committee.
Any investigation of politicization of the civil service by the government operations committee would have to be approved by a majority of MPs on the committee.
Conservatives, as on all committees in their majority Parliament, control the agenda.
Editor's note: One of Fantino's letters was posted as a blog entry for The Huffington Post Canada.