Actions speak louder than words

On Tuesday morning, May 21, 2013 at approximately 9:30am, Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke to his caucus on the Senate expenses scandal. Like many Canadians, I listened and heard him say during his speech,

“I need not remind you that in 2006 this government was first elected to clean up the Liberal sponsorship scandal, to ensure the rules are followed and to ensure there are consequences when they are not.”

“Canada now has one of the most accountable and transparent systems of governance in the entire world and this is something Canadians are rightly proud of.”

Having listened to Prime Minister Harper’s speech, at 11:00am the same morning I attended the meeting of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates. The discussion was to be the Integrated Relocation Program with witnesses from the Department of Public Works and Government Services (PWGSC). Anything to do with ethics and public procurement is always of interest to me. I wanted to listen to PWGSC explain that the rules would be followed. This meeting was held just 1 ½ hour after our Prime Minister stated that Canadians should be proud of the transparency and openness of the federal government.

PWGSC officials were scheduled to speak from 11:00am to 12:00pm and to be followed by another witness. The Chair, Pat Martin (NDP), pointed out that the second set of witnesses could not attend. The reasons why are not relevant. Under circumstances such as this, adjustments are often contemplated in the schedule. The Chair suggested that, if there were no objections, time for testimony from the witnesses from PWGCS be extended by an additional ½ hour.

Conservative members immediately objected and insisted that a formal motion was required.

Therefore, John McCallum (Liberal) immediately moved that the PWGSC witnesses testify the additional ½ hour to 12:30pm. After over ten minutes of discussion about allowing an additional 30 minutes of testimony, the motion was defeated 6 to 4. I was impressed by the speed at which the Conservative hands shot straight up high in the air demonstrating party solidarity and defeating the motion.

Although I was sitting behind them, it appeared the witnesses had no objection. This vote effectively limited opportunities for discussion. I was left wondering, “Is this what the Prime Minister meant when he said Canada had “one of the most accountable and transparent systems of governance in the entire world.

At the end of the meeting the Chair wanted to ask the witnesses from PWGSC if the firm, Envoy Relocation Services, who sued the Crown over the previous contract, would be allowed to bid. This was a simple yes/no answer and not a new discussion. Immediately the Conservatives objected to PWGSC answering. According to their members, the time was up and no new questions were to be allowed, not even a simple (and final) question from the Chair. This consumed another senseless period of time as the discussion went on. Finally the Chair withdrew his question and the ‘open’ part of the meeting ended.

Unknown to me while I was witnessing this Conservative demonstration of “accountability and transparency”, Mr. Bruce Atyeo, the President of Envoy Relocation Services was also in the listening audience. I had never met him. It was only because of a chance remark after the spectators had left the meeting that we ended up being introduced. Mr. Atyeo observed that by the Conservatives refusing to allow the final answer, the Conservatives obviously did not want him to bid on the contract and wanted Brookfield Global Relocation Services to continue to be the contractor.

While I do not necessarily share his viewpoint, my understanding of the contracting rules is that the PWGSC officials were prevented from confirming that Envoy would be allowed to bid. The other interesting item was that the officials stated that it would take about 18 months for a new contract and that meant the current contract would have to be extended. They never did explain why they had not already started – which would have avoided the need for an extension.  Perhaps with an extra half hour they would have been asked this question. Now we’ll never know. Which is, of course, the whole point.

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