Government whip open to revisiting controversial confidentiality agreement
Published Friday, December 13, 2013 12:34PM EST
Government Whip John Duncan says he will work “collaboratively with the NDP” to revisit the language in a controversial lifetime confidentiality agreement that MPs’ staffers are being asked to sign.
Staffers must sign the agreement, which was approved by the all-party Board of Internal Economy in March and came into effect on April 1, in order to receive a raise or if they change jobs.
The agreement’s strong language raised questions on Parliament Hill earlier this week, and the New Democrats pledged to revisit the document.
When asked on CTV’s Power Play Thursday if he was prepared to do the same, Duncan said “sure.
“I think it should be brought back to the very board that made this decision last March. We’ll have a look at it,” Duncan said.
“I’ll do that collaboratively with the NDP.”
Duncan noted that “a lot of employees” of Conservative caucus members have signed the agreement, “and I’d never heard of any issue with this document. They’ve all signed it.”
The agreement only came to light earlier this week when it was sent to members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery from an email account apparently set up with a pseudonym.
The agreement has a number of clauses, including: “That information to which I may become privy in the course of my employment relating to the activities and work of my employer is politically sensitive and confidential and that I will not divulge such information except as may be required by law.”
Another clause says: “This Agreement survives the termination of employment. In the event of a post-employment breach of this Agreement, in addition to any other legal or administrative recourse available to my employer or the House of Commons, I will repay any amount equal to any termination pay received on termination of employment.”
Duncan defended the agreement, saying MPs and cabinet ministers are already subject to a code of ethics, and it stands to reason that their staffers be “held to a similar set of ethics.”
“This deals with contracts outside of their employment, it deals with setting up businesses outside of their employment, deals with any gifts they may receive in terms of disclosure,” Duncan said. “To me, almost all of this document is pretty non-controversial. The one clause that you have read is where the controversy is, and if there’s some language there that is unacceptable…it can be brought back to that board again for a look at the language.”
Duncan denied that the agreement was intended to clamp down on whistleblowers.
“We don’t want that to happen, for sure,” he said, noting that legislation already protects whistleblowers.
“The intent is we deal with a lot of private, personal information, we want to make sure that if somebody gives our offices private personal information, that they know not only will that survive the tenure of the people they’re dealing with, that’s forever.”
Anthony Salloum, union head for NDP staffers on the Hill, said the agreement “does place a chill” on staffers who may want to speak publicly about their careers.
“It is intentionally vague, it applies in perpetuity, it does not define what a breach is,” Salloum told Power Play Thursday.
“So what it does is it places a cone of silence on staff. Folks who are thinking down the road of reflecting on their time on Parliament Hill are going to worry now that someone somewhere may take offence to some of their stories or anecdotes or reflections.”
Salloum also noted that the agreement gives the power to the House of Commons to take penal action against a former staffer, even if that staffer’s former employer chose not to.
Salloum said he has told his union members that they have three options when facing the decision to sign the agreement in order to, for example, get a raise: they can sign it, they can delay signing it and delay their raise, or they can decide not to sign it and forgo their raise.
He has also asked the union’s lawyer to provide a legal opinion on how they can respond to the agreement.
“(Parliament Hill) experience informs our life in some ways. It colours our perspective on things, and it often leads to interesting careers in which we become political commentators and advisers and political figures,” Salloum said. “And so we can’t have these staff confined and constricted in their ability to affect the public discourse, and that’s the worrisome part of this vague agreement.”