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View Chris Warkentin Profile
CPC (AB)
I call to order the 42nd meeting of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. I would like to remind colleagues that today's meeting is webcast and will be available through the House of Commons website. The committee is meeting today because of a request that I and the clerk received from four members of the committee, pursuant to Standing Order 106(4), to discuss a request to undertake a study of members' expenses related to Data Sciences and NGP VAN.
Now, given the ongoing restrictions here in the province of Ontario and in the House of Commons, based on the recommendations of health authorities, I'd like to remind members that there is a two-metre physical distancing requirement. Members must maintain masks when circulating throughout the rooms. Proper hand hygiene is encouraged as well. Hand sanitizer is available here in the room. As chair, I will be enforcing those measures. If you as members have any requests in terms of these requirements, please let me or the clerk know. Thank you for your co-operation.
I see that I have a speaking list starting to develop. Mr. Barrett has indicated he wants to go first, followed by Mr. Carrie.
Mr. Barrett, I will turn to you.
View Michael Barrett Profile
CPC (ON)
Thanks very much, Chair.
The reasons for the 106(4) letter that you referenced, which has us here today, are some concerning revelations that have been reported in the media, specifically The Globe and Mail, that deal with contracts involving Data Sciences, which is a company that was founded by an individual named Tom Pitfield. This individual is a personal lifelong friend of the Prime Minister, who is a member of the Liberal caucus. This individual is also a senior Liberal campaign strategist, and that organization, Data Sciences, has been an integral part, as publicly reported, of the Liberal Party of Canada's electoral campaigns and their voter contact database known as Liberalist. It helps with things like digital engagement for its campaigns.
Furthermore, NGP VAN is a company that the Liberal Party of Canada licenses to run its political database. NGP VAN and Data Sciences are reported by the folks who have been contacted by The Globe and Mail to do the same thing. We've seen the contract between the Liberal members who have signed and NGP VAN, and we know that Data Sciences is being contracted by Liberal members. The rationale once given by the company for the contract with Data Sciences is that it provides technical support for the services provided by NGP VAN. The problem with this is that the contract that was published in The Globe and Mail details the service-level agreement including technical support for its own software, which raises the question, what is Data Sciences doing for the Liberal members? What are they getting from this contract?
When asked, some members of the Liberal caucus responded—and here I'll refer to a June 21 Globe and Mail article entitled “Liberal MPs’ budgets pay same firms that help run party’s digital campaigns”—as follows. The article reads in part:
Mr. Easter [the member for Malpeque] was unable to explain what Data Sciences did for his office in managing social media. “I do my own,” he said. “I quite honestly don’t know what [Data Sciences] does,” he added.
Liberal MP John McKay also said he had no idea why money from his office budget was going to Mr. Pitfield’s company. “I haven't got a clue,” he said. “I can't explain it. I vaguely recall that once a year we write a cheque and it's always been explained that it is within the ethical guidelines, so we all kind of sign up for it and it just goes into some oblivion”.
The concern as it relates to this committee, Chair, is that this places some members of the government—members of the Liberal caucus—in a conflict of interest based on their relationship with Mr. Pitfield. We have individuals who have personal friendships with public office holders. They're then given contracts by those public office holders, and, what's more, those individuals, in this case a minister, are in a position to direct or coordinate other members to retain those services for purposes that the members are unclear about.
Certainly in the context of our fiduciary responsibility to manage the funds that are entrusted to us in the exercise of our role as members of Parliament and to dispense funds from what we know as our MOB, our members' operating budget, it's important that we first of all understand why we're retaining the services of others. I also think it's important for Canadians to understand that signing contracts is not something a member can delegate. Members have to personally sign and authorize those contracts. There needs to be an understanding and certainly a basic awareness of what a contract is for. That's exercising a basic fiduciary responsibility.
When there is all of this context of those personal relationships, of that connection to a political organization, and when in these contracts it's very clear that there's an exclusivity, that the company will only deal with members of one political affiliation, in this case Liberal members, it raises all kinds of questions. The functionality of the software also raises questions about whether there is an ability to engage in very specific voter-related activities.
It's for those reasons that we initiated the call for this meeting. It's very important, when there seems to be an inevitable election coming this summer.... I welcome the Prime Minister's proving the speculators wrong on that, because now is not the time for an election. I think it's important that we understand whether or not taxpayer money from members' budgets has been used to subsidize the political operations of a political party in Canada. It's very important that we know that there's been no misappropriation of that money and that we understand that there have been no conflicts of interest in members' and ministers' exercise of their duties. That's what brings us here today.
With that said, Chair, I would like to move the following motion:
That, pursuant to Standing Order 108(3)(h)(vii), and in light of recent media reports, the committee undertake a study on conflicts of interest relating to taxpayer-funded contracts with Data Sciences Inc; and that the committee do invite Mr. Tom Pitfield to appear and testify before the committee at a time and date of the Chair’s choosing and no later than seven days following the adoption of this motion.
Mr. Chair, that motion is available in both official languages in paper format, and it's been provided in electronic format to the clerk, so it's whatever your comfort or members' comfort is with receiving that in paper. Once that's been distributed, I just have a few final comments to make before other members speak to or against the motion.
View Brenda Shanahan Profile
Lib. (QC)
On a point of order, Mr. Chair, can we have some time to study the motion, since it's the first time the committee is seeing it? Can we have 10 minutes?
View Chris Warkentin Profile
CPC (AB)
What we'll do is circulate it. I will suspend the meeting until such time as it's been circulated. I'm not sure it will be for a full 10 minutes, but it will allow for members to at least read it before debate. I believe Mr. Barrett had some further comments to make, so it will allow members to read through that as well during that period of time.
We'll now suspend for just a moment....
Mr. Dong.
View Han Dong Profile
Lib. (ON)
I believe it's the order that once a member moves a motion, he pretty much loses the floor. The floor is ceded to the next speaker.
View Chris Warkentin Profile
CPC (AB)
Mr. Barrett did not cede the floor. He did make it clear that he was circulating the motion to allow him to speak to it.
If it's the member's desire, we can continue and not suspend, if that's more helpful for members. I think there's a difference of opinion.
View Han Dong Profile
Lib. (ON)
Is Mr. Barrett officially moving the motion?
View Chris Warkentin Profile
CPC (AB)
He's moving the motion, and he's made it clear that he has some comments to make with regard to the motion.
View Han Dong Profile
Lib. (ON)
He has further comments. He isn't done moving the motion. That's part of the moving of the motion process.
Okay. Got it.
View Chris Warkentin Profile
CPC (AB)
We will suspend until such time as the motion is circulated.
The meeting is suspended.
View Chris Warkentin Profile
CPC (AB)
I call this meeting back to order.
I believe the copies have been circulated.
Mr. Barrett, we will turn to you.
View Michael Barrett Profile
CPC (ON)
Mr. Chair, with respect to the concerns about a conflict of interest, this is something that's been discussed in the last year—certainly the appearance of a conflict of interest—but we need to be, of course, cognizant of actual conflicts of interests as well. Mr. Pitfield's personal relationship and the question that it raises.... As I initially identified, there is that relationship with the Prime Minister, but there's also a relationship with other ministers of the Crown as well—Minister Miller, Minister O'Regan. The connection to the Liberal Party is as close as you could get, because at the time these contracts were initially signed, Mr. Pitfield was married to the then Liberal Party of Canada president. Moreover, the Prime Minister's principal secretary at the time, Mr. Butts, was also a personal friend of Mr. Pitfield.
These close relationships, when awarding a contract.... We talk about the magnitude of the two contracts, but whether it's tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, we are responsible for ensuring that not only do we spend the money wisely so that we can serve our constituents with those members' office budgets, but that we also make sure that we're not undermining the public's confidence in what we do here and how we got here.
As I mentioned before, in the context of an election, if members of a party are taking the funds from those office budgets to help subsidize the political operations of a political party, which will ultimately be the same banner they run under in the next election, well, that is going to give rise to concern among Canadians about the independence of and the confidence they can have in their elected officials and public institutions. It's that perception, but also that real conflict when we have those close relationships.
There's also the dynamic of when the party whip, as reported in the newspaper, is the one coordinating or directing members to all procure the same service provider. Members aren't given a whole lot of leeway. You know, the party whip has one job, and it's to get people to do what the government wants them to do. The whip assigns committee roles. The whip assigns your seat in the chamber. Certainly, if things aren't going well between you and the party whip, you're not going to find yourself on the front bench or serving as a parliamentary secretary or a committee chair if you're in a party that is first or second in the House.
It's certainly concerning. It creates the perfect storm for conflict when you have those personal relationships with members at the cabinet table and you have a member at the cabinet table directing or coordinating other members to all procure the services of this individual and their company. Then, what is that company actually doing? Is there a benefit for service? Well, that remains unclear. We have two Liberal members saying they have no idea what the services are for, and then we have the response from the Liberal research bureau as to what the company is doing for them, while those very same members have also signed a contract for a company that's providing the identical service, in terms of technical support, as NGP VAN is for them.
That's the crux of the matter here. I do think this is something that we can deal with rather expeditiously. I think we can address this issue. If it's simply miscommunication, or a lack of information, perhaps members today will be able to enlighten us on exactly what this contract does in their office. That might go a long way. It might shorten the length of time we would need to devote to this. Perhaps, if Mr. Pitfield were available, if this motion passes, we could dispense with this matter before the end of the week. I know that folks have travelled to Ottawa. We could get this done over a couple of quick meetings after today.
I think that would go a long way to reassuring Canadians about what's happening in their democratic institutions on the eve of an election.
Thank you.
View Chris Warkentin Profile
CPC (AB)
Thank you.
I have a speaking list that has developed here: Mr. Carrie, Mr. Boulerice, and then Mrs. Shanahan.
Mr. Carrie.
View Colin Carrie Profile
CPC (ON)
View Colin Carrie Profile
2021-07-12 11:19
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I want to thank Mr. Barrett for bringing this up. This really speaks to the fundamental transparency of our electoral system. I was extremely concerned when I read about this in The Globe and Mail, especially now as we are wading towards an unnecessary election. Canadians deserve to know where their money is going. It's very clear that Mr. Pitfield is a partisan actor here. He did the work for the Liberal Party in the 2015 and 2019 political campaigns, and my understanding is that he is going to be doing the same thing again. However, he is being paid by Liberal members out of their operating budgets. As Mr. Barrett pointed out, and what many Canadians don't understand, is that our operating budgets are for our constituents.
In my office we look after seniors, veterans, people who are looking for benefits, and immigration. To have their taxpayer dollars, especially during this pandemic, going for partisan purposes is something that concerns everyone, because it does speak to the fundamental transparency of our system. What's extremely disturbing to me is what appears to be the connection here, in that these are more Liberal insiders. In other words here's Mr. Pitfield, who is one of the Prime Minister's best friends. Let's just talk about this relationship here. He grew up with him. Their fathers were best friends. He went to that illegal vacation with the Prime Minister and his wife, with his wife, who was the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Then we find out through the media about these secret agreements, these contracts. Even Liberal MPs don't even know what his company is doing. We have a copy of the contract with the company that is supposed to be doing it, NGP VAN, and we found out that there was a centralized campaign that was steered by the party whip. Mr. Barrett clearly pointed out—and I don't think Canadians realize who the party whip is—that the party whip is the guy who has the whip. He tells you about discipline, about what to do and what not to do, and when he presents a contract to members to sign, as The Globe and Mail reported, 97% of Liberal MPs signed that thing.
I just wonder what kind of pressure there would be for me as a member of Parliament if my whip came up and said, “sign this”, because our functions here at the House and everything is determined by the whip's office. Whether we're sitting on a certain committee or whether it's in terms of the influence to become a minister or a parliamentary secretary, the pressure on members of Parliament would be enormous. I would just look at which members of Parliament didn't sign this and what they're doing right now. That will be interesting as we investigate this further.
The government has been asked these questions, and it hasn't been forthcoming. The situation we're in right now is one of pre-election. We see the Prime Minister going out and spending taxpayers' money right, left, and centre. As I said, members' operating budgets are for our constituents. This is something that was organized through a minister's office, through the whip directive to other ministers and members of Parliament, and if this is true, Mr. Chair, a conflict of interest has occurred. Liberal ministers having a relationship with a company and forcing contracts to be signed between members of Parliament and a personal friend of the Prime Minister for services that apparently are being covered by another company is an outrageous abuse of our privileges here, Mr. Chair.
This is something on which, as Mr. Barrett says, there may just be a miscommunication. I think Canadians deserve to know where their tax dollars are going, and given the history of this Prime Minister, we need to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible.
View Chris Warkentin Profile
CPC (AB)
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