iPolitics - January 19, 2012
By Lawrence Martin
Should the government be in the business of controlling whom the RCMP commissioner can and cannot see?
New Mountie boss Bob Paulson has told Senator Colin Kenny that he can’t meet with him until he gets clearance from the Ministry of Public Safety.
Strange, says Mr. Kenny. Very strange. He says he has met with no less than nine Mountie commissioners in the past and that they have never had to go to their political superiors to get prior approval. The vetting, he says, is an infringement on the independence of the RCMP and Kenny has told the commissioner he should not put up with it.
Last fall, The Toronto Star reported that the Conservatives had quietly brought in a new set of communications guidelines to keep the Mounties on a tighter leash. The report said Mountie messaging would be monitored and vetted by Public Safety in a wide range of areas. Over the years the Harper government has repeatedly been hit with the control freak label on account of its far-reaching vetting and censorship system. At one point it even made a bid to vet the communications of the Auditor-General.
The closed nature of such a system is bad enough in a democracy but, says Kenny, extending it to the national police force is taking things to a disturbing new level. Under such controls, with Conservatives overseeing access, the senator says information potentially incriminating to the government might never see the light of day.
Commissioner Paulson and Senator Kenny have exchanged several emails over the last two weeks. For Kenny, a Liberal senator who has often been critical of his party, defence and security issues have been a speciality for three decades. As such he has always enjoyed special access to security personnel. He had Paulson over to his house for dinner last year, this being prior to Paulson’s being appointed commissioner in November.
When contacted about a meeting, Paulson initially indicated it would be set up. But he wrote back a week later to tell Kenny he had to get the green light from Public Safety. Subsequently, Kenny told Paulson he was letting himself be “muzzled” by the government. Paulson responded, saying he disagreed with such a characterization.
But Kenny maintains it is a reasonable characterization. “My view is that it is the duty of the commissioner to say to the government, ‘No, you don’t decide who I see or when I see them. I am the commissioner of an independent national police force. I have responsibilities to provinces, to municipalities.”
Those latter responsibilities, Kenny noted, makes Paulson the head of far more than just this government’s police force. The provinces and municipalities don’t have a say in who he meets with. Why should Harper’s men? Though Paulson was appointed by the PM, that doesn’t mean he goes back to the prime minister and says, ‘May I?’ He has a duty of trust with the public.
Following more exchanges, Kenny’s office heard from a staffer to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. The staffer said that a meeting would be possible between Kenny and the commissioner, but that in keeping with departmental guidelines, there would be strings attached.
“To be clear…” the staffer wrote, “it would be required that we extend an invitation to the same meeting to counterparts from the Conservatives and the NDP, in addition to Senator Kenny. The purpose for this is to ensure that all Parliamentarians are given the same level of access to officials.”
Kenny says that he is not interested in a meeting under those circumstances. He awaits further word from Commissioner Paulson, not the Public Safety department. The purpose of the meeting, he says, is to discuss the RCMP’s handling of the kidnapping of former Canadian diplomat Bob Fowler as well as other subjects. Having been involved with the working of the force for so long, Kenny feels he has some worthwhile advice to pass on.
The important issue however is not whether such a meeting is held. It is whether, in another effort to limit potential avenues of dissent, the government of the day is interfering with the workings of the national police force.