Conservatives, NDP demand release of documents linked to 'troubling' claims Clerk of House favoured Liberals

·6 min read
Five senior managers started filing complaints in 2018 claiming there were issues with the Clerk of the House of Commons Charles Robert's performance and treatment of staff. Three years on, the issues have not been fully resolved, multiple sources said. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)
Five senior managers started filing complaints in 2018 claiming there were issues with the Clerk of the House of Commons Charles Robert's performance and treatment of staff. Three years on, the issues have not been fully resolved, multiple sources said. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)

The Conservatives and the NDP are calling on the Liberal government to release email and text messages between the party and Clerk of the House of Commons Charles Robert in response to claims that Robert broke the cardinal rule of his job by acting partisan.

According to Robert's official job description, he's expected to advise the Speaker and all MPs on parliamentary procedure "regardless of party affiliation" and "with impartiality and discretion."

CBC News reported last week that Robert is facing claims that he made partisan comments and shared confidential information with the Liberals that could have given the party a strategic advantage over the opposition in the House.

The Conservatives' deputy leader, Candice Bergen, called the allegations "deeply concerning."

"The clerk is to be completely nonpartisan," Bergen told CBC News. "The clerk is the referee ... We need to find out which Liberals were complicit in this, if it's indeed true, which Liberals spoke to the clerk."

The Conservatives say they want the Prime Minister's Office and the offices of the Liberal House leader and whip to release correspondence with Robert. The NDP says it supports the push for the release of documents.

"Those documents are key," said NDP deputy House leader Lindsay Mathyssen. "It's extremely concerning and troubling to me that these allegations are out there and they certainly need to be investigated."

The Conservatives are also calling on MPs to elect a new Speaker to the House next week who will commit to an independent review of the claims against the clerk. The NDP says it wants the Board of Internal Economy, which oversees administration of the House, to discuss the matter in-camera since it likely would involve personal human resources information.

CBC News reported last week on a series of claims based on written complaints and letters sent to Robert's supervisor, the Speaker of the House of Commons. Ten sources with knowledge of the inner workings of Robert's office corroborated the claims and provided additional examples. The sources asked not to be named because they didn't want to jeopardize anyone's career.

Staff said they heard Robert make comments they deemed to be partisan. Multiple sources allege Robert stated that he was happy with the outcome of the 2019 federal election — which was a Liberal minority government.

Robert is also facing claims that he shared with the Liberals confidential information given to him by opposition parties. He's been accused specifically of sharing with the Liberals in advance an unfavourable ruling by the Speaker on medically assisted dying — and of asking the government when it would like the Speaker to deliver the ruling in the House so it would not disrupt the party's agenda.

That move went against normal practice and could have given the Liberals a tactical advantage in the House, said multiple sources.

Robert's office issued a statement on Monday saying that the clerk and his staff keep such information confidential.

"In providing services to members, clerk and the House administration regularly communicate with members and House officers of all parties in the House of Commons," wrote the clerk's office. "The House administration keeps these communications confidential. As in all matters, the House administration is subject to any directions it may receive from the board or the house."

WATCH | Clerk of the House accused of favouring Liberals:

Robert also has been accused of treating some staff members with disrespect, while some complainants also claim he's been spotted sleeping on the job while in the chamber during question period.

Sen. Housakos says Robert acted in nonpartisan fashion

Last week, Robert wrote in a statement that he's devoted his career to serving Parliament.

"For more than 40 years, I have served Parliament and parliamentarians of both Houses with integrity and to the best of my ability," wrote Robert. "Prior to my appointment as Clerk of the House of Commons, I was for several years the interim Clerk of the Senate providing advice and counsel to three Speakers, Conservative and Liberal."

Robert said he has addressed the sleeping matter.

Sen. Leo Housakos' office contacted CBC News on Monday after this update to the story was first published to defend Robert. Housakos was appointed to the Senate by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 and was named Speaker in 2015. Housakos said he worked with Robert during his time as Speaker.

"I've only ever known Mr. Robert to act in a professional, trustworthy and nonpartisan fashion, serving only the best interests of the institution above all else," wrote Housakos.

"I consider Mr. Robert to be a man of great integrity and a most outstanding Clerk. I was privileged to have his guidance during an extraordinarily difficult time for the Senate of Canada and wouldn't hesitate to work with him again."

The House of Commons shared a copy of a 2018 survey conducted by a third party that estimates overall staff "engagement" or satisfaction with their work in the House at 78 per cent — a 4 per cent increase over 2014. The House of Commons scored higher than the public sector norm, which is 68 per cent, according to the survey. More than 70 per cent of House employees participated in the survey.

Robert also said in his defence that he made significant changes to the office when he was appointed and claimed a group of senior managers resisted change.

According to sources and a written complaint, the concerns are more widespread.

The five senior managers worked closely with Robert and filed the first complaint in 2018 on behalf of their staff, the complaint said. The manager wrote to Robert's boss — the Speaker of the House of Commons at the time, Geoff Regan— that they were dealing with mounting complaints from staff about his work and the situation had become "untenable."

Auditor walked away, 3 senior managers left

Four senior managers in Robert's office have taken sick leave; three have taken early retirement since last year.

Robert's chief audit executive also walked away from the job over a concern about a conflict of interest, multiple sources said. Robert removed the auditor's ability to take concerns directly to the Speaker. If the auditor ever found wrongdoing, the report would only go to Robert.

Two of the senior managers who left sent letters to Speaker Anthony Rota saying they were retiring early because they had no other option, since the issues with the office were not being resolved.

The clerk met "efforts to uphold the principles of political neutrality, good governance, transparency and sound management with disapproval," reads one of the letters.

Conservatives calling for next Speaker to investigate

The Conservatives sent a letter to all MPs on Friday calling for the next Speaker of the House to investigate the claims against the clerk.

Asked if Rota would commit to launching an external review into the matter, his Speaker's office told CBC News the Board of Internal Economy "has the ultimate responsibility with respect to any House Administration employment matter."

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner called for cross-partisan support and leadership from the next Speaker to meaningfully address the situation.

MPs cast their ballot for the next Speaker of the House on Nov. 22, when Parliament returns.

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