THE BLOG

Ontario Legislature Should Use Speaker's Warrant to Learn What Really Happened

07/30/2013 05:46 EDT | Updated 09/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Recently leaked emails between Dalton McGuinty's former advisers reveal that they attempted to convince the Speaker to change his mind on an important contempt ruling against former Energy Minister Chris Bentley.

Since the emails have been leaked, Don Guy responded via email to The Globe and Mail that it was the partisan tactics of the Progressive Conservatives, who first moved the contempt motion against Chris Bentley, which prompted him to approach the Speaker. Partisan advisers have no business in the Speaker's office. The Speaker is an independent officer of the Assembly and does not answer to his caucus or party. The impartiality of the Speaker is crucial and must be preserved at all costs.

An email from Don Guy to other Liberal advisers suggested that:

Speaker needs to follow up on his prima facie finding and change his mind

Laura Miller emailed that:

Dave is putting the member from brant [Levac, aka the Speaker] on notice that we need better here.

Miller later wrote:

DG [Don Guy] reports he isn't confident coming out of his chat w Levac.

Thankfully, the partisan intimidation did not affect the Speaker, who released his ruling, prompting the disclosure of information relating to the cancellation of two power plants. This was followed by McGuinty's resignation and prorogation (which, by the way, is constitutionally legitimate, even though it is often employed for partisan purposes).

Now that this information has come to light, the public has a right to know about the extent of this problem in the Legislature. The Legislative Assembly has a power that is rarely used, not very well known, but is extremely powerful. It is able to compel any person to testify before it by authorizing the Speaker to issue a warrant under section 35 of the Legislative Assembly Act. Disobeying the warrant constitutes contempt of the Assembly, and, under section 47 of the same act, the Assembly may imprison offenders for the remainder of the legislative session.

It is crucial to note that the Speaker's warrant cannot be exercised solely on the Speaker's own accord, and that it requires the passage of a majority vote in the Assembly. Speaker Warner in 1992 noted that:

The Speaker cannot issue a warrant at the request of a single member of the assembly or even at the direct request of a committee. The Speaker may only exercise a discretion to issue a warrant upon the passage of a motion in this House.

The fact that it is the Assembly (with competing partisan interests) which possesses this power (and not the impartial Speaker) might suggest that this power would be abused for partisan purposes. It is, however, rarely used. Legislatures have used the Speaker's Warrant sparingly. It was used recently in June of 2012, when the Public Accounts Committee asked the Assembly to empower the Speaker to issue a warrant for former ORNGE head Chris Mazza to testify on the ORNGE air ambulance scandal.

Prior to this, the last instance arose in 1992. Federally, the Speaker's warrant has been used even less frequently. One was issued to compel the testimony of Karlheinz Schreiber to discuss his business dealings with Brian Mulroney in 2007. Prior to this, the last federal Speaker's warrant was issued in 1913.

There may be more information in emails which haven't yet been leaked. The former advisers, instead of apologizing, defended their actions in an email to The Globe and Mail, arguing that it was "unfair" for the Tories to continue with the contempt motion after the government handed over the gas plant documents.

Guy was incredibly arrogant when stating that his interest was in preventing another "unnecessary" election "should the opposition abuse their majority to pass their partisan motion." Sorry Guy, but that's how it works: democratically elected representatives pass motions in the legislature.

The public deserves to know the extent of the attack on parliamentary democracy. The Assembly, now that the Opposition is in majority, should authorize a Speaker's warrant on these advisers and compel them to testify about the extent of their involvement in the issue. The warrant should also authorize a search of the advisers' email accounts, but, given the obvious violation of privacy, should be analyzed in camera by either a small ad hoc committee empowered to conduct the investigation, or an external overseer (if this is possible under the rules of the Assembly). It is possible to use a Speaker's warrant and conduct investigations in camera: this was done in 1992.

While it is admirable that Speaker Levac did not give in to the advisers' demands and went ahead with his contempt finding, he should have informed the Assembly about this incident. It is important for legislators and the public alike to know about such cases.

What would also be important to discern is whether McGuinty had any knowledge of the actions of his advisers. While he is no longer an MPP, he should also be compelled via warrant to appear before the Assembly. The public deserves to know and should see the Assembly taking swift action in this regard.

Originally published inThe Prince Arthur Herald.