POLITICS

Income-Splitting Announcement Made Against Advice Of Top Public Servant

04/22/2015 05:25 EDT | Updated 06/22/2015 05:59 EDT

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced major fiscal policies in Vaughan, Ont., last fall against the advice of Canada's senior public servant, who said Parliament should be informed first, a newly disclosed document indicates.

Harper's unveiling of the $4.6-billion-a-year package of income-splitting and richer child-benefit cheques was made Oct. 30, about a month after he was advised that the House of Commons was the proper place to do so.

Wayne Wouters, clerk of the Privy Council, wrote a memo to Harper on Sept. 24 about whether it was appropriate to publicly preview measures that would be contained in the government's fall economic update, which was eventually tabled Nov. 12.

Wouters's answer was that the government could refer to the new legislative measures in advance outside the House of Commons, but not in any detail and with language that indicated they were plans and not a certainty.

"The purpose of this note is to brief you on considerations regarding the roll-out of measures to be included in the Fall Update of Economic and Fiscal Projections (EFU), as we understand there may be interest in announcing the measures in advance of the EFU," he wrote.

"There are no legal or parliamentary impediments to announcing measures prior to the EFU; however, any EFU pre-announcements must not presume passage of the relevant measure, and language should be developed accordingly (e.g., 'the Government plans …') and should not provide a detailed outline of the measure (outside the House of Commons)."

Glitzy announcement

CBC News obtained the heavily censored document under the Access to Information Act.

Harper's glitzy announcement at Vaughan's Schwartz/Reisman Community Centre included many details of the new measures. The government's news release, which called them "proposed" measures, went on to use more definitive language, such as: "Families can claim the Family Tax Cut in the spring of 2015, when they file their 2014 tax returns."

Or: "They will begin to receive payments under the enhanced UCCB (Universal Child Care Benefit) in July 2015."

Rob Walsh, a retired law clerk of the Commons who examined the memo for CBC, called it "standard protocol," adding it was "highly improper" to reveal details of proposed legislation outside the House of Commons, where elected MPs must make the final decision.

"It's treating them as unimportant. It's an impertinence to the institution," he said.

The announcement also ensures the government will not be held responsible in the Commons for any false or misleading statements.

"When you speak in the House, you're accountable for what you say. And if what you say should be false or misleading, you can be held to account in the House for doing so." By releasing details in other venues, however, "there's no procedural repercussions."

"It's just part of their political philosophy, to show disregard when it suits them of our political institutions, like the House of Commons."

Move called 'troubling'

Nathan Cullen, NDP finance critic, called the decision to announce income-splitting outside the Commons "very troubling."

"The Conservatives ignored very clear advice from the clerk of the Privy Council about not revealing details about their income-splitting giveaway before it was tabled in the House of Commons," he said.

"It's very troubling that the Conservatives deliberately ignored the advice … so that they could play political games with a policy that's only going to help the wealthiest."

"This is on top of the millions they're going to spend on advertising for measures that haven't even been passed yet."

Budget date announced outside House

Another recent example was Finance Minister Joe Oliver's announcement of the date of Tuesday's 2015 budget, which he made April 2 during a media event at outerwear manufacturer Canada Goose's factory in Toronto. Walsh says parliamentary protocol requires such announcements to be made to MPs in the Commons.

The memo from Wouters, who's now working for a Toronto law firm, told Harper that any measures in the fiscal update requiring legislation should be seen first by elected MPs, whether in the House or at the finance committee.

"By doing so, members of the House of Commons are the first to see and examine such measures prior to the introduction of legislation. This approach is consistent with implementing legislative measures in the budget," he wrote.

Wouters was not immediately available for comment, but Rob Nicol, a spokesman for the prime minister, defended the Vaughan announcement.

"These are important measures which allow more money to flow back into the pockets of families with children," Nicol said in an email. "That's why the prime minister made the announcement outside of the House of Commons with those families."

One of the most notorious abuses of parliamentary tradition was the so-called "Magna Budget" of Ontario's Progressive Conservative government in 2003, under then-premier Ernie Eves, who was soon to face an election.

His finance minister, Janet Ecker, presented the budget at the headquarters of auto parts maker Magna International. The Speaker of the legislature, himself a Progressive Conservative MP, later ruled the move was in contempt of the legislature. The government used its majority to overturn the ruling.

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