OTTAWA - Parliamentarians who want to have lunch — or even an informal chat — with the country's new top cop are being told they'll have to book an appointment through the public safety minister.
The edict was communicated this week to Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, the former head of the Senate security and defence committee, when he tried to corral RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson for a private get together.
"I apologize (sic) for any delay but I've become aware of some guidelines from the Department of Public Safety in terms of engaging with Parliamentarians and Senators so I may have to respectfully ask you to route your request for a meeting through Minister's Office or the Department," Paulson wrote in a Jan. 16 email obtained by The Canadian Press.
Kenny is a consummate Ottawa insider with deep connections in the defence, policing and intelligence community — associations that date back decades. He was stunned by the response, especially since the newly-minted commissioner had been his guest before being promoted, and he'd had unfettered access to nine of Paulson's predecessors.
"As a parliamentarian, I won't tolerate being muzzled and I'm surprised that you as the Commissioner of the RCMP, a supposedly independent organization, are telling me that you have been," Kenny responded in an email.
Paulson, in an email response to Kenny, denied being muzzled.When he was chair of the Senate defence committee, Kenny was well-know
It was clear in a further email exchange that the senator was not being singled out, but instead had bumped up against a blanket government policy meant to apply to all Parliamentarians.
A staffer in Public Safety Minister Vic Toews' office weighed in the following day, telling Kenny's staff that it is the minister who does the talking for the RCMP when it comes to contact with MPs and senators, and the most appropriate forum for comments by the commissioner is before Parliamentary committees.
"It is the Minister (and by extension, his staff) who are primarily responsible for addressing the concerns of Parliamentarians," wrote Mark Johnson in a Jan. 17 email.
He went on to say that he could arrange a meeting for Kenny, but would have to invite members of other political parties in order "to ensure that all Parliamentarians are given the same level of access to officials."
Kenny was incredulous and warned in his response to Paulson that accepting such restrictions was dangerous.
"I'm sorry, but when you tell me that you, the Commissioner of the RCMP, are required to have your meetings with Parliamentarians, or anyone else, vetted by the Department of Public Safety, you are telling me the government has decided to take control of your discourse in a way it has never taken control of the discourse of any of your predecessors," he wrote.
"I find it incredible that you would accept such a restriction given the arm's length relationship between the government and Canada's national police force. Accepting any limitation on persons the Commissioner of the RCMP can speak with can only diminish the independence (of) your office and your institution, both of which are essential to the well-being of Canadians."
He went on to note that none of Paulson's predecessors "tolerated any interference in meeting with anyone they chose to meet with."
A spokeswoman for Toews said senior officials clearing meetings with parliamentarians is "standard practice across government" and is meant to ensure a co-ordinated approach between departments and agencies.
"Claims that the RCMP are being muzzled are baseless and inaccurate," said Julie Carmichael, the minister's press secretary.
"The kind of secret meetings Senator Kenny is asking for are not in keeping with the tradition of openness fostered in Parliamentary committees open to Canadians."
Last year, The Toronto Star reported that the Harper government had moved to take firmer control of RCMP public statements by instituting a new communications protocol. It required the Mounties to flag anything that might “garner national media attention” to the Public Safety Department.
Previously, routine matters such as media advisories, news releases, background information and media lines did not have to be approved ahead of time.
But that changed with a Sept. 20, 2011, memo, which was obtained by the newspaper.