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Senators question Internal Economy Committee’s $108,000, ‘sole-source’ media relations contract

By Abbas Rana      

Internal Economy Committee Chair Leo Housakos says the Senate communications directorate's task is to do outreach to Canadians about the legislative work of the Senate, not media relations.

He's the boss: Quebec Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos is the chair of the Senate's powerful Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The Senate’s Internal Economy Committee has put out a “sole-source” contract worth $108,000 for a communications consultant to do media relations for the committee, and several Senators are asking why a contractor is needed when there are about two dozen people already in the Senate’s communications directorate.

New Brunswick Ind. Sen. Pierrette Ringuette led the questioning on this in the Senate late on the afternoon of Thursday, May 18, just before the Red Chamber started a 10-day recess. She asked the Senate’s Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee Chair and Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos (Wellington, Que.) why the Senate’s powerful committee that oversees financial and administrative affairs needs a consultant when the communications directorate employs 22 people and has a budget of more than $1-million.

No formal competition was launched to fill this position, nor was any advertising done. The plan to pay $108,000 to someone to fill this role was indicated in a report from the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee that appeared on its website on May 16.

Sen. Ringuette wondered “what part” of the communications team led by Mélissa Leclerc “is not expert enough to provide the service that Internal Economy is seeking?”

Sen. Housakos, who is also the chair of the eight-member Internal Economy Subcommittee on Communications, said the Senate communications directorate doesn’t do media relations, and instead its focus is on “outreach” to Canadians.

He said the communications directorate is tasked to inform Canadians about the legislative work that the Senate does.

“They do promotion of committee work,” Sen. Housakos said in the Chamber. “They do promotion and branding vis-à-vis the institution. They do a lot of our footprint when it comes to social media. We have all seen the invention of a Senate Twitter site that wasn’t there before. We’ve all seen the wonderful work they’ve done with the actual website that has become cutting edge and modern, to the point where the House of Commons just announced last week their own re-engineering of their website.”

Sen. Housakos said his director of parliamentary affairs, Jacqui Delaney, has been doing double duty for about two years as his Senate staffer while also handling media requests for the Internal Economic Committee.

Senate communications director Ms. Leclerc was deputy director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper and a senior ministerial staffer to two Harper-era cabinet ministers, including Jason Kenney and Stockwell Day. She also ran unsuccessfully as a Conservative in the 2011 federal election in the Quebec riding of Shefford.

New Brunswick Ind. Sen. Pierrette Ringuette is raising questions as to why the Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee wants to hire a media relations contractor when there are 22 staffers in the Senate Communications directorate. The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster

Prince Edward Island Ind. Sen. Mike Duffy, a former high-profile TV journalist, questioned Sen. Housakos why the Internal Economy Committee chose to make this a “sole-source contract,” did not enclose a job description with the contract, and did not say whether bilingualism is a requirement for this job.

Prince Edward Island Ind. Sen. Mike Duffy asked on May 18 why the communications consultant ‘sole-source’ contract does not have a job description or eligibility criteria attached. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

“Why would the Senate of Canada want to have a sole-source contract? Wouldn’t we be open?” Sen. Duffy asked of Sen. Housakos in the Senate. “This is a town full of communications experts. Why would we not ask for a competition? On the terms of reference, is the person to be appointed to this job bilingual, completely fluent in both official languages? We have a very active media in both languages.”

Sen. Duffy also asked why this issue was brought up in the “last hour of the day” prior to the start of the 10-day recess.

“I find it interesting that it’s quarter to four on the last day before we take a 10-day recess, and those who have not been here as long as some others, those who are relatively new, may find it interesting that, often, in the last hour of the last day before a recess, at this time, items are brought before the Senate in which there is expected to be rather quick approval,” Sen. Duffy said.

Sen. Duffy asked all Senators to “take a long, hard look at this before we rubber stamp this request.”

Sen. Housakos said this contract was approved by the entire Internal Economy Committee. He pointed out that both the Internal Economy Committee, which oversees a budget of about $100-million, has representation from all Senate caucuses, including the Independent Senators Group that Sen. Duffy belongs to.

In the 105-member Red Chamber, there are 38 Conservatives, 18 Liberals, six Independents, 35 Independent Senators who have formed an Independent Senators Group, and one Independent Reform Senator. The Independent Senators Group is headed by Alberta Sen. Elaine McCoy. Currently, there are seven vacant Senate seats.

In the 18-member Internal Economy Committee, there are seven Conservative Senators, six from the Independent Senators Group (ISG), and four Liberals. The Government Senate Whip Grant Mitchell (Edmonton, Alta.), who is not a member of any partisan Senate caucus, is also a member of the Internal Economy Committee. The subcommittee on communications has eight members—three Conservatives, two Liberals, two from the Independent Senators Group, and Sen. Mitchell.

Sen. Housakos told The Hill Times that bilingualism is a requirement for this job and he has asked the leadership of all three caucuses and Senators to refer applicants for this job. He said the reason why the Internal Economy Committee wants to hire someone for this position on contractual basis is because committee chairs and vice-chairs come and go, and those who take on these leadership roles in the future should feel free to change up their media relations help if they see fit.

“We’re cognizant of the fact that the new chair, vice-chair, if they come in in three months, six months, in a year and a half, should not feel saddled in working with the individual in question,” Sen. Housakos said.

For example, he said: “If Sen. Ringuette becomes the chair of the committee in six months, it’s going to be unfair for her staff to be stuck manning the media relations desk while the rest of her work in the office and research suffers.”

He added that the successful candidate would have to be approved by the Internal Economy Committee. Sen. Housakos also denied that he had any specific candidate in mind for this position.

“Not at all, not at all. We’ve requested candidates [from all Senators],” he said, adding that anyone who is bilingual and has media relations experience is eligible to apply for this job.

“I’ve asked people in the media that I know. I’ve asked Senators. I’ve made the request to all Senate caucuses if they have candidates, even if they have people in their offices that would be interested.”

Sen. Housakos explained that the committee had not posted this job on any website to save time and the cost to pay a head hunter for vetting candidates. He said the contractor would likely be working on a month-by-month contract.

“It’s hard to post a job [when] it’s not a long-term job and there’s no benefits that go with that job,” said Sen. Housakos.

Sen. Mitchell in the Chamber on May 18 lauded the communications work of the Senate communications directorate. He pointed out some of the highlights of the work it has done, including creating an e-newsletter to disseminate the work of individual Senators to Canadians, producing a modern Senate website, and creating a virtual tour of the Senate. He said the communications staff is overworked and understaffed.

“This place is humming,” Sen. Mitchell said. “This is modern-day communications. It doesn’t [get] much better than this. It isn’t as good as this in any legislature in any Chamber, any institution like ours across the country. You know what? They are really, really busy.”

Sen. Housakos told The Hill Times he doesn’t find it odd that the communications directorate has 22 staffers without anyone doing media relations. He argued that in order to provide clear and timely answers to media requests, it’s better that media requests are handled by the political staff working for the Internal Economy instead of a non-political Senate communications staffer. He said the Senate tried to task Senate communications to handle media requests in the past, but it didn’t work out very well.

“The chair of the subcommittee and the deputy chair, who, I reiterate, happens to also be the chair and deputy chair of Internal Economy, which gives the added weight of making sure that the responses we give to the media are backed up by a solid authority and that we give them the information, of course, that is concrete and transparent and that we do so in a timely fashion,” he said.

Toronto Ind. Sen. Anne Cools and Quebec Liberal Sen. Joan Fraser said in the Chamber on May 18 that they would like to participate in the debate, but needed more time to do their research and would take part in the debate when the Senate returns this week.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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