Binkley on parliamentary freedom



Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ... 

The Binkley Report

An obscure decision that’s good for everyone

'It's the Members of Parliament who are supposed to run the place'

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

23 March 2012 OTTAWA Canada — Commons Speaker, Andrew Scheer, who seemed to favour the Conservative government in disputes with the opposition parties, has come to the right conclusion on a crucial matter for all Canadians.

Manitoba NDP MP Pat Martin had protested his privileges as an elected representative were interfered with by security officials during the March 2 visit to Parliament Hill by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Security on the Hill is shared by the Commons and Senate security services, the RCMP and, when needed, the Ottawa Police. Heavy duty fencing is erected for all but the most trivial protests. Visitors to the Centre Block where the Commons and Senate chambers are located is on a par with what travelers undergo at an airport.

There were protests during Netanyahu’s visit, but nothing that posed a threat. Still Martin got ordered around by security officials when he attempted to watch the demonstration. Other MPs were sent back to their offices to get proof of their identity. MPs are easily recognized by pins they all wear so it tells you how well trained some of the security folks were that day.

Martin at least had the gumption to complain about the treatment.

Now some readers might be wondering what’s the big deal if a few MPs were inconvenienced.

Parliament is the forum where they represent us. They, not the security folks or some government department we don’t elect, are supposed to run the place.

That means no official should be able to tell them where they can’t go or what they can’t do.

Scheer has sent the issue to the Commons committee on Procedure and House Affairs for further study. One issue that needs to be resolved, he said, is whether an MP’s “right to access had been interfered with to an extent that was unjustified, thereby impeding them in the performance of their Parliamentary duties.”

However, the Speaker didn’t stop there. He also recommended the committee examine whether interference with Parliamentarians wouldn’t happen “if the House and its members had greater control over the management of the buildings and the surrounding precinct.”

He made it clear that “the implementation of security measures cannot override the right of members to unfettered access to the parliamentary precinct, free from obstruction or interference.”

Similar problems cropped up during the infamous 2004 visit by former US President George Bush in 2004. An investigation by the same committee concluded, “The denial of access to Members of the House — even if temporary — is unacceptable, and constitutes a contempt of the House. Members must not be impeded or interfered with while on their way to the Chamber, or when going about their parliamentary business. To permit this would interfere with the operation of the House of Commons, and undermine the pre-eminent right of the House to the service of its Members.”

Martin noted that in 1992, the Auditor General of Canada suggested it was time for the Commons and Senate security services and the RCMP to harmonize their security policies for the Hill. Nothing happened and a decade later an advisory committee on the renovation of Parliament Hill called for a serious examination of a central agency for the maintenance, operations, security and control of the Parliamentary precinct.

The issue is “whether we should be masters of our own domain, whether we should be merely tenants of the Parliamentary precinct or if we in fact are an integral part, the directors and controllers of it,” Martin said.

Tom Lukiwski, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader, said the committee would get to Martin’s case once it deals with its study on the supposed threats to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews in the Vikileaks case and the release of messy details about his divorce.

Lukiwski seemed more interested in the political hay that might come from attacking the opposition in the Vikileaks case than in dealing with the far more important matters Martin has raised.

The big issue will be whether the Conservatives will use their majority to bury Martin’s complaint or give it that several studies have shown it deserves.  Failure to do so will further reinforce the image of Parliament as nothing more than the rubber stamp of a majority government.

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