Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Dean Del Mastro: Judge, jury and information commissioner

What is going on at the ethics committee under Dean Del Mastro's leadership deserves plenty of sunlight. From a Liberal release this afternoon:
Liberal Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics critic Scott Andrews made the following statement today on the Conservative’s attack on the CBC at the Ethics Committee:

“The Prime Minister’s own Parliamentary Secretary, Dean Del Mastro’s attempt to hold a vote on the production of documents by the CBC behind closed doors is an abuse of power. I will be recusing myself from this debate and the vote. Furthermore, I will be seeking a legal opinion from the Law Clerk of the House of Commons with respect to the appropriateness of Mr. Del Mastro’s motion.

The Conservatives know that Canadians do not support their attack on the CBC, so they want to hide it from public scrutiny. First, they wanted to drag a judge before committee. Now they want to secretly force the production of documents that are before the Supreme Court into the committee process. This is a fundamental shift in the way Parliament works and an attempt to do an end run around the courts. Mr. Del Mastro wants to be judge, jury and the Information Commissioner all wrapped in one.

Canadians do not support this unprecedented attack on the CBC. It is unacceptable to turn the lights off on proceedings to avoid scrutiny.”
Here is the motion as of the end of last week on the material Del Mastro et al. are trying to produce. It is worth the reminder that CBC has argued that it is withholding materials as they may compromise journalistic activities. In other words, things like sources, journalistic methods, whatever it is that they are arguing in their legal dispute with the information commissioner. Which is where the dispute should properly be resolved. And there are legitimate grounds for that argument to be taking place, the provisions in the access law that the Harper government passed are ambiguous:
Von Finckenstein says he doesn't take sides in the legal dispute between Legault and CBC — "both are perfectly legitimate positions," he told the committee — but he pointed to unclear wording of the law.

He noted that the law the Tories implemented seems to both exclude journalistic and creative records from the Access to Information Act altogether, yet it is unclear whether that means the information commissioner cannot use her powers under the open-records law to examine the records, as the CBC maintains.

"The easiest way to fix is it to establish by legislation whether she can look at the documents or she cannot," von Finckenstein said. Until then, it will be left to courts to decide, he added. "That's why we have courts — to resolve it."

The Conservative government in 2006 extended the Access to Information Act to the CBC and other federal Crown corporations, while giving the CBC the journalistic and creative exemption.
Yes, that's why we have courts, to resolve such disputes in legislation. The rule of law, not men.

And note the irony in that preceding linked report, the Conservatives are fighting access to information requests to the Department of Justice and Public Safety and are funding litigation in support of those claims. Yet they decry others pursuing the same course of litigation, like the CBC, and then seek to compel production through parliamentary committee under the force of their majority government position.

Do Canadians support the possibility of Dean Del Mastro and his Conservative confreres on the committee prying into journalistic materials? Politicians leafing through the CBC's materials? There are freedom of the press implications that stem from the Conservatives' actions and they deserve plenty of attention.