Opening up the House Board of Internal Economy to the public won’t be as easy as it sounds, say a pair of retired MPs who once served on the board.
The Trudeau Liberal government promised to open up the board, which governs the administration of the House of Commons, to the public as part of the fall economic update. The Liberal Party had made a campaign promise to open up the board, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) once introduced a private member’s bill proposing to do the same.
The promise of public board meetings won support from Green Party leader Elizabeth May and the federal NDP.
“We’ve been pushing for a very long time for a more open and transparent committee,” said NDP MP Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.), his party’s House leader and representative on the board.
Conservative board spokesperson Gordon Brown has largely stayed quiet on the matter, and a pair of former board members—one Liberal, one Conservative—are warning that bringing the public into board meetings could be impractical, and spoil a non-partisan atmosphere that allows the board to make decisions quickly.
The seven-member board includes Liberal MPs Geoff Regan (Halifax West, N.S.), the House Speaker and the board chair; Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.), the government House leader; Andrew Leslie (Orléans, Ont.), the government whip; Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, N.B.), the fisheries minister and former House leader; as well as Mr. Rankin; and Mr. Brown (Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, Ont.), his party’s whip; and Conservative MP Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.), her party’s House leader.
The board operates by consensus. Concise minutes for each meeting are eventually published on the board’s website.
It’s not clear how quickly the government will act on its promise to open up the board meetings to the public. Changes to the Parliament of Canada Act, which empowers the board, may be needed before it can be opened up to the public, according to Ms. Chagger’s office.
Those changes may have to do with provisions in the act that require board members to swear an oath of secrecy, said Mr. LeBlanc.
The government is currently in talks with the Privy Council Office and Justice Department regarding the legislative changes needed to open up the board, according to Sabrina Atwal, a spokesperson for Ms. Chagger. She would not say when the government would introduce the legislation needed to make the change.
‘The door’s barely going to be ajar’
Opening the Board of Internal Economy meetings to the public will be difficult, given that the majority of the meetings touch upon subjects that are too sensitive to be publicly aired, said Don Boudria, a former Liberal MP, minister, and government House leader who served on the board twice between 1997 and 2003.
The government’s proposal would allow the board to go in camera, much like regular House committees, in “exceptional cases involving sensitive or personal information.”
That would likely cover, at a minimum, discussions involving the hirings or firings of staff, personal details that fall under federal privacy legislation, and details of House of Commons security.
It would likely also be necessary for the board to go in camera to discuss labour contracts, litigation, and contracts with service providers to the House, to ensure the House doesn’t undermine its own negotiating position, said Mr. Boudria.
Board discussions often touch on one of those subjects, said Mr. Boudria, and a significant portion of board meetings may still have to be held in camera.
“Perhaps there are more things that can be open [to the public], but there aren’t that many more,” he said.
“Even when it’s open, the door’s barely going to be ajar.”
The minutes from board meetings in the last Parliament show the board discussed a fairly balanced mix of sensitive and more routine issues. In a meeting on June 18, 2015, the board agreed to take action over per diem claims from one unnamed member, but also discussed desks in Centre Block, financial reports for the House and MPs, printing and mailing policies, and an employee leave policy. Other meetings covered multiple subjects related to security or commercial services provided to the House, topics that could be kept behind closed doors even after the board is opened to the public.
Holding board meetings without public access also allows the members to speak about issues frankly, without political posturing, said John Reynolds, a former Conservative MP and House leader who served on the board several times between 2000 and 2005.
“There’s no partisanship. Because you can say what you want to say,” said Mr. Reynolds.
Speaking behind closed doors allows members to discuss potential cases of misbehaviour or impropriety by an MP or staff member, without trying that person in the court of public opinion, he said.
The board crafted a harassment prevention policy behind closed doors in 2014. Those discussions came after the board decided it did not have a mandate to investigate sexual harassment allegations made against two now-former Liberal MPs by a pair of NDP MPs.
Mr. Brown, his party’s spokesperson for the board, declined to be interviewed about the government’s proposed change.
In an emailed statement, he wrote that the proposal was “not a BOIE decision. It is a government decision” and that the details had not yet been brought to the board.
Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.), a former minister who has never served on the board, expressed concerns similar to those raised by Mr. Reynolds when asked to evaluate the government’s proposal to open up the board to the public.
“I think that so many of the issues that are discussed by the board are effectively considered and resolved by the fact that they have traditionally been in camera,” he said.
“The discussion is much more open, it’s much less partisan. I think the discussions come to a resolution much faster than [they] might if we were in the normal public committee setting,” he said, comparing the situation to House committee meetings held in public instead of in camera.
“Probably the bulk of the issues I would think considered by the board are of high sensitivity. There are privacy issues involved,” he said. “If there’s a way to separate the general knowledge, parliamentary information that’s considered, then sure. But I think that, where to draw the line…is going to be the challenge.”
‘Open means open’
Mr. LeBlanc had a simpler take on how the board would operate once the government’s legislation came through.
“Open means open. Open would mean that it would be open to the public and the media,” he said.
Liberal MP Scott Simms (Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, N.L.) likewise had a simple formula for an open board: respect federal privacy laws and keep sensitive personal information in camera, and make discussions over expenses, policy, and House administration open to the public.
Mr. Simms has served in Parliament since 2004, though never on the board.
The board could model its rules for going in camera after municipal councils, which keep discussions over commercial negotiations or personnel behind closed doors, said Mr. Rankin. He rejected the notion that holding board meetings in public would compromise what he described as an atmosphere of collegiality amongst board members.
The Senate Internal Economy, Budgets, and Administration Committee could serve as another model for the House board. That committee decided to open itself up to the public in May, with exceptions for discussions about parliamentary security or personnel.
“It was an easier transition than people thought,” said Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, who chairs the Senate committee.
Most of the committee’s discussions are not of a sensitive nature, said Sen. Housakos, making it easy to open up to the public “in the spirit of transparency.”
“Why didn’t we do this a long time ago?” he said.