OTTAWA — A committee of MPs who imposed lifetime gag orders on political staff may revisit their decision — but they have no plans to make it easier for employees to whistleblow, a spokesperson said Wednesday.
NDP MP Nycole Turmel, who speaks on behalf of the Board of Internal Economy, told The Huffington Post Canada the lifetime confidentiality agreements were proposed in March behind closed doors and discussed in most party caucuses.
The agreements became public Wednesday after they were leaked to the media by a staffer unhappy with the change.
“Right now, I know that people are reacting negatively and we’ll see what happens. I’m ready to revisit the policy with the board if we need to,” Turmel said, adding that NDP MPs were grappling with the issue in the wake of complaints from their own staff.
If the policy is rescinded, all parties would have to agree, she said. The Board of Internal Economy runs on consensus.
Turmel, a former president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the country’s largest union of federal public servants, said she sympathizes with whistleblowers. The NDP has relied on them to hold the government to account, she said, noting the case of federal fraud investigator Sylvie Therrien. Therrien sounded the alarm over performance objectives her colleagues were told to meet by denying $40,000 worth of EI claims a month.
“For me, it’s important to protect those people. Does the (agreement) mean we won’t? I don’t think so, but we should verify,” Turmel said.
“Is there complete protection? We’d have to experiment to find out, but I do doubt it,” she added.
Turmel acknowledged that one whistleblower in the Senate scandal, Alison Stodin — a former aide to Senator Pamela Wallin who flagged her boss’s unusual travel — might have been affected by the new rule if it had applied to her in the upper chamber.
But in the same breath, she said she doesn’t think the lifetime confidentiality agreements will dissuade staff from exposing fraudulent behaviour. The CBC reported that the gag order states any breach can result in immediate termination without pay or notice.
Turmel also doesn’t think political staff should be given a way to report wrongdoing to an independent third party — such as the Commons’ Ethics watchdog Mary Dawson — without fear of reprisals.
The “difficulty,” she said, is that political staff are either hired by MPs directly or by their political parties. It isn’t the board’s place, an all-party committee, to determine to whom political staff should report, Turmel suggested.
“We can intervene for House of Commons staff, we can intervene to force employees to sign this letter, but can we go above that an impose rules on other party caucuses regarding laws or procedures? That would be — there would certainly be resistance,” she said.
While NDP staffers are unionized and may be offered some type of support if they disclose wrongdoing, employees working for the Conservatives and the Liberals are not. One long-time Liberal staffer told HuffPost she already has a confidentiality agreement and “this is nothing new.”
Confidentiality agreements, when applied, were previously handled on an ad hoc basis for Hill staff, said Laura Smith, an advisor to Tory whip John Duncan who is also a spokesperson for the Board of Internal Economy. The board decided to apply a “consistent standard to all staff,” she wrote in an email.
The only public notice of the policy change was a cryptic reference in the committee's March 4 minutes saying it had “approved the proposed modernization of employment and salary policies for employees of Members, House Officers and National Caucus Research Offices.”
Peter Van Loan, the Conservative government’s house leader, told HuffPost he sees no need for the policy.
“I have to confess I do not have any such arrangements with my staff, and I have not had any problems with my staff,” he said in an interview.
The confidentiality agreements kicked in on April 1, 2013 for all new hires. Staff who have their contracts renewed, or have a change in the terms of their contract, such as a salary increase, may also have to sign the document.
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