Hill staff asked to sign lifetime confidentiality agreements

A proposed lifetime gag order for employees of members of Parliament that would restrict their ability to share information — and stifle the kind of whistleblowing that led to some of the revelations in the Senate scandal — is triggering alarm among Parliament Hill staff, according to a union representing some of the workers.

Hill journalists were sent a grainy photo of the new agreement last week from "Nanker Phelge," a pseudonymous email account that appears to have been set up by a Hill staffer unhappy over the change in policy.

"At a time when some parliamentarians are moving to create a more open and transparent Parliament, the [House of Commons'] Board of Internal Economy is putting measures in place to ensure parliamentary staff can't be whistleblowers on their employers," the email said.

The author highlights several provisions, including the lifetime application of the contract and the fact that any breach can result in immediate termination without pay or notice, as well as a new requirement to disclose all outside work, including volunteer gigs.

The email also pointedly notes restrictions on sharing information about the inner workings of the parliamentary precinct.

"Employees may not disclose any information about their employer which is politically sensitive," the writer says.

"If a MP staff member wanted to write a book about their time working in Parliament they couldn't ... but their MP could. Talk about a double standard," the email says.

The House of Commons Speaker's office confirmed this week that the new form is in circulation.

"In the past, conflict of interest and confidentiality was dealt with in each separate [MP's] office on an ad hoc basis," spokesperson Heather Bradley told CBC News.

In March, as part of a broader modernization effort, the all-party Board of Internal Economy agreed to implement a number of changes to employment contracts and policies, Bradley said.

One of those changes was to make it mandatory for all MPs' offices — as well as House officers, party leaders and caucus research groups — to switch to the standardized conflict of interest and confidentiality agreement, and file signed copies of those agreements with the House pay and benefits office "as evidence that the board's decision is being respected," she said.

Anthony Salloum, head of the union that represents most NDP staffers on the Hill, said he's gotten a "significant" number of emails from union members expressing concern over the wording of the new contract.

"Clearly, vague language like that found in Article 8 [which states that the contract survives the termination of employment, and even establishes automatic penalties in the event of a breach] is deeply worrisome."

According to Salloum, although the new requirement came into effect in March, for most NDP staffers, it didn't kick in until they got a raise under their collective agreement earlier this fall.

"Many of my colleagues were asked to sign this form in order to receive their raises," he told CBC News.

The union has asked for a legal opinion on the new document, which Salloum said he intends to share with NDP caucus chair Peter Julian.

"It's important for us to be informed on whether we have any grounds to formally object to it," Salloum said.

In the meantime, it seems, Hill staffers hoping to collect year-end raises or holiday bonuses will have to sign on the dotted line.