Opening Remards by Anne-Marie Robinson, President of the Public Service Commission, at a meeting of the Senate National Finance Committee regarding Bill C-520, An Act supporting non-partisan offices of Agents of Parliament

January 28, 2015

Check against delivery.

Mr. Chair, I would like to thank you and Members of the Committee for this opportunity to meet with you regarding Bill C-520.

Our analysis on Bill C-520 comes from an organization that has a unique perspective and experience in administering non-partisanship. Merit and non-partisanship are the cornerstones of both a professional public service and the Westminster model of parliamentary government. They lie at the heart of the mandate of the Public Service Commission (PSC).

We recognize the Bill’s objective of increasing transparency and accountability and we are committed to ensuring that public servants carry out their duties in a non-partisan manner. However, the Commission is concerned that the proposed Bill will have significant consequences for our merit-based appointment system. Canada has benefitted from a merit-based staffing system for the federal public service since 1908.

This regime relies on a number of requirements set out in the Public Service Employment Act (PSEA). One of those is that only the qualifications required to perform the duties of a position are to be assessed when a position is being filled. That means the assessment of applicants is based only on the competencies required to do the job. Only information required for the assessment and appointment process is collected from applicants.

Bill C-520 proposes a substantial change to this regime. It would require all applicants for positions in the offices of the Agents of Parliament, and not just successful candidates, to provide information on their past political affiliation as soon as possible in the selection process. The purpose of this additional requirement is not clear.

Even though it may not be the intention of this Bill, asking for information on past political affiliation is at odds with the existing legislation and could lead to a perception that this information may be used in the selection process. The fact that we do not ask for information on political affiliation is essential in ensuring confidence, on the part of the public and applicants, in the impartiality and fairness of the merit-based appointment system.

Moreover, Bill C-520’s requirements apply to all employees, whatever their level and whatever the nature of their duties – regardless of the differential risk that these may present. In addition, this may result in challenges for Agents of Parliament in recruiting employees.

Once appointed to the public service, there is already a regime in place to ensure public servants perform their duties in a politically impartial manner. First, the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector requires that public servants carry out their duties in a non-partisan and impartial manner. Deputy heads, which include 7 of the 9 Agents of Parliament, are responsible for ensuring that the Code is implemented effectively in their organization and they have the tools to take corrective measures, as necessary. The Public Sector Integrity Commissioner can conduct an investigation of a serious breach of the Code.

Second, there is a regime in place to regulate the political activities of public servants. In 2005, Parliament amended the PSEA to recognize the right of public servants to engage in political activities while maintaining the principle of political impartiality in the public service, which reflects the principles articulated in the Supreme Court of Canada’s Osborne decision. Political activities are defined in the PSEA as carrying out any activity that supports or opposes a political party or candidate, or seeking nomination as or being a candidate in an election.

This regime is based on a balance between the rights of public servants and their obligations as employees. Our staffing survey indicates that only 4 to 7% of public servants are engaged in non-candidacy political activities such as placing a sign on their lawn, or volunteering for a candidate.

The PSEA also requires employees to seek permission if they wish to be a candidate in federal, provincial, territorial and municipal elections, and it provides authority for the PSC to grant permission and require the employee to take a leave of absence without pay under certain circumstances. If elected to federal, provincial or territorial office, they cease to be public servants.

Under the PSEA, deputy heads, which includes 7 of the 9 Agents of Parliament, are prohibited from engaging in any political activity, other than voting. The other two Agents of Parliament have enabling legislation that limits any activities inconsistent with their position.

The PSC may investigate an allegation, from anyone, of improper political activity by a federal public servant and, if the allegation is founded, can take the corrective action that it considers appropriate, up to and including dismissal. In our experience, there have been few instances of improper political activity and, when those situations have arisen, the system has delivered an appropriate response.

The PSC has a robust program which provides guidance and tools to educate employees and help them make informed decisions. Moreover, unlike some of its other authorities which can be delegated, the PSC’s authorities related to political activities cannot be delegated.

Mr. Chair, we also have concerns regarding Bill C-520’s different and potentially duplicative system of oversight and compliance, and the impact this could have on employees and their rights. The PSEA recognizes the rights of public servants to engage in political activities provided that it does not impair or be perceived as impairing the employees’ ability to perform their duties in a politically impartial manner. Factors to be considered include the nature of the political activity, the employee’s duties, and the level and visibility of the position.

The federal public service benefits from a workforce hired on merit, comprised of engaged citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and experience and who, once appointed, must perform their duties in a politically impartial manner.

Mr. Chair, I would be pleased to respond to your questions.