CBC Power and Politics host Evan Solomon and three committee members discuss former Integrity Commissioner Christiane Ouimet's testimony before the Public Accounts committee today. (8 minutes)
Guests were Andrew Saxton (Conservative), Navdeep Bains (Liberal), and David Christopherson (NDP).
Evan Solomon: Welcome back to Power and Politics. To hear it from her, it has been a terrible ordeal for Canada’s former and embattled Integrity Commissioner. Christiane Ouimet says she lost her reputation when she was let go last year after three years of seven year term. She says even her vacation was interrupted by a request to testify before the commons’ public accounts committee.
The opposition thinks she was incompetent. They say according to a report from the Auditor General, she was abusive to staff and they say she was bought off with a half a million dollar severance package to keep quiet about government wrongdoing which is why she barely ruled at all on any cases before her. Is this another Conservative attempt to control the public agenda or as the Prime Minister himself said, was it the easiest and cheapest way to replace a civil servant just to let her go?
Let’s find out the reaction from people who grilled her today. I’m joined by Andrew Saxton, the parliamentary secretary to the president of the treasury board, the Ontario Liberal MP Navdeep Bains, and David Christopherson NDP public accounts critic. Gentlemen, good to have you. Mr. Saxon, let me start with you. Were you satisfied with what madam Ouimet’s explanations about her performance were before committee today?
Andrew Saxton: Let’s first of all be absolutely clear why our government established the office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. It was after thirteen years of Liberal scandals that we wanted to make sure that all whistleblowers were protected that they were heard and that their complaints were investigated. That remains to be number one priority of our government.
Evan Solomon: But can you answer the question? Were you satisfied with… the Auditor General had a damning report saying frankly she didn’t rule on hundreds of cases including some pretty critical cases about privacy of veterans, that she abused her staff and generally, and she got half a million dollars for doing what Auditor General classified as a “terrible job.” Were you satisfied with that?
Andrew Saxton: I can tell you that we are very troubled by the Auditor General’s report. It’s very scathing report. Now we've got a situation where two agents of parliament are disagreeing with each other. One says everything was just tickadee boo in her office and the other one says that was obviously that was not her opinion and quite the contrary. So it will be interesting to see how it plays out between these two agents of the parliament because they are at very opposite ends of this argument.
Evan Solomon: Navdeep Bains, just to reiterate that two hundred twenty-eight disclosures of wrongdoing, seven investigated, five were closed, no findings of wrongdoing. The report on her performance was damning. She pushed right back and said AG’s investigation was biased and she said it was bullying. Were you satisfied today?
Navdeep Bains: Well, that begs a question, why was she entitled to half a million dollars? Why did the Prime Minister think this was the fastest, cheapest way to get rid of her? I mean compared to thirty billion dollars for fighter jets, I guess it is cheap, but you have to look into the context of the outrage by Canadians and people are unemployed.
Half a million dollars and she says she didn’t resign even though Stockwell Day now comments that she did resign. It is clearly, a question of why did she accept the half a million dollars, why did she accept the terms of agreement, why did she accept the gag order and the hush money. Those are the types of questions we wanted to ask and we did get a chance to do so a bit today. But, those are the kind of questions we decide. Why does the Prime Minister decide how much money an independent officer of parliament should receive? Parliament should decide that. The House of Commons should decide that. And why did the Prime Minster make this decision?
Evan Solomon: David Christopherson, your view on what questions remain now the, Prime Minister again saying today the government does not have a legal recourse to fire an individual and he simply was listening to government lawyers saying this was the cheapest way to do it. What questions remain for you?
David Christopherson: Well there are two sides to this and in my opinion, and I agree with Nav with the issue around the dollars. Why did she receive that much money? The whole process—she said that she didn’t leave voluntarily. Does that mean she was fired? Since it was Parliament that hired her not the Prime Minister, it would seem only Parliament could fire her. So, the circumstances around the leaving, the agreement, the half a million dollars all in question.
On the side, I’m the longest continuous serving member, I’m the public accounts now, I have never, ever seen someone come in the department head, an officer of parliament no less and say the entire report of Auditor General is wrong, that her methodology was not acceptable, I mean, it takes guts to take on roomful of MPs and you got to be almost crazy to take on Sheila Fraser but that’s where we are until the next meeting.
We now agreed that we are going to haul them both back and we are going to start asking the questions and when one says something about the another one, we are going to give the opportunity right then and there to talk about methodology, detail.
Madam Ouimet says that she can answer every single allegation in the AG report and that she condemns the entire process contained therein. Obviously the Auditor General recently tweeted in the last couple of hours that she still stands by her report. So all the allegations in the report are still subject to our scrutiny and our review and we are going to have both the principals in the room and hope that we can get to the truth.
Navdeep Bains: We did wait for three months to have, if I may add, to give Ms. Ouimet to come before committee. So, the other questions that we tried to focus today are really on her independence. The Prime Minister’s Office and the Treasury Board Office's fingerprints were all over some of these cases and we talked about particular emails and we talked about the interaction between her office and the office of the Prime Minister and said why hasn’t the independent office of parliament were you so close with the Prime Minister’s office and Treasury Board. You need to be completely independent and that’s a clear question for the Prime Minister’s office had an agenda here as well.
Andrew Saxton: No, no, she was absolutely clear that there was no interference. That’s not what we are trying to do. She was absolutely categorically clear that there was no interference from anybody. She was absolutely categorically clear. No interference.
Navdeep Bains: There were emails between her and the Prime Minister’s office. I cited a case example in the committee as well. I have it ready.
Evan Solomon: Let me bring in Andrew Saxon. First of all, again, a little bit of news for our viewers, the committee is now saying they are going to bring Auditor General Sheila Fraser back with Christiane Ouimet embattled Integrity Commissioner at the very same time to question them and juxtapose their testimony. That would be a fascinating thing. We wait for that.
Andrew Saxton, the opposition’s still saying, why did the Prime Minister give this person half a million dollars? Why did they not go through the opposition who hired her? It was a non-partisan appointment. Why did the Prime Minister then have her leave? She says she was asked to leave. She didn’t want to leave. Why did the Prime Minister do that?
Andrew Saxton: Well, keep in mind she also said that in the summer several months prior to her leaving, she had approached people that she wanted to leave. That she was considering leaving. This was obviously something on her mind and she was the one who initiated it.
David Christopherson: That’s not the testimony she had. I asked specifically…
Navdeep Bains: She said she had no choice. No, today, clearly in the committee, she said she he had no choice, she was given no option. That’s why she had to accept the leave.
Andrew Saxton: No, she said she was tired, she had two years of audit and she was ready to move on.
David Christopherson: Andrew, I asked specifically if Madame Ouimet has spoken to anyone about leaving prior to the “non-negotiable” offer that was made by the government PCO, I believe, to her lawyer, and she said, "No".
Navdeep Bains: That’s right. She had no option, she said no choice, she said the Prime Minister...
Andrew Saxton: She said the lawyers had discussed it. She said the lawyers have discussed it.
Evan Solomon: Gentlemen, I have to leave it there, gentlemen. We are very much looking forward to seeing Christiane Ouimet and the Auditor General Sheila Fraser together in front of your committee to get to the bottom of some of these questions, clearly many left.
Parliamentary Secretary President to the Treasury Board Andrew Saxton, Ontario Liberal MP Navdeep Bains, David Christopherson NDP Public Accounts Critic. Gentlemen, thanks for staying up, lots are going on in the house today. I appreciate it.
Andrew Saxton, David Christopherson, Navdeep Bains: Thanks, Evan.