Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Privilege to Waste Your Time

Joan Fraser sites undefined privileges in complaint

More details have emerged over the faux-outrage surrounding Alison Redford and Dave Chomiak's exit from a Senate Committee on a justice bill eliminating the two-for-one bill regarding time served.

Liberal Senator Joan Fraser recently demanded that Redford, the Attorney General of Alberta, and Chomiak, the Attorney General of Manitoba, face contempt of Senate charges because they attended a press conference with federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson before going to the airport.

They had told the committee that they needed to be excused so they could catch their flight.

“Ms Redford misled the committee about the reason for curtailing its hearings," Fraser complained. "She left the committee with the clear impression the reason why she and Mr Chomiak were leaving ... was to catch planes west.”

“Misleading committees is a serious matter,” Fraser added, and later complained that "Our privileges have been breached."

One may wonder precisely what privilege Fraser is talking about. Considering that Redford and Chomiak were scheduled to be before the Senate committee for one hour, and instead spent an hour and ten minutes at the committee, it would seem that the privilege that was "breached" was either some imagined privilege to set the schedules of ministers of the crown, or the privilege to waste their time.

Either that, or Fraser can't appreciate Redford's tact. After all, "we have to catch our flights" is a more polite way to terminate a conversation than "you're clearly wasting our time".

Of course, one knows that Fraser's objection really has nothing to do with misleading a Senate committee. Instead, this is an attempt at a vengeance burn, pure and simple. Fraser is angry that her amendments to the bill in question -- granting 1.5 for one time served -- are being criticized.

At least one Senator present wasn't prepared to tolerate Fraser's obvious attempt at silencing criticism of the Liberal Senators' ideological wrangling.

"It does not matter whether they wanted to go to McDonald’s for a hamburger or they needed to go the restroom or whatever," countered Bert Brown.

As the only elected Senator in the chamber, Brown has a moral authority on this particular matter that Fraser would do well to consider. Likewise, Redford can speak with a similar authority.

“I’m at a loss. We see what goes on in jails and in the courts. People don’t have confidence in the system. The Senate is not in touch with the real world,” said Redford. “I’m an elected official. People voted for me. The idea of the Senate holding a provincial minister in contempt. What can they do? We have a serious problem here. This is like Disneyland.”

There may be another important motive underlying Fraser's move -- drawing attention away from the fact that the Attorneys General from each Canadian Province, including governments from each of Canada's federal political parties (no, the Bloc Quebecois doesn't count) supported the bill in question.

Fraser cannot pretend that the government's outrage over the matter is purely partisan. Conservative, NDP and Liberal provincial governments approved of abolishing two-for-one sentencing provisions. Nor can Liberal justice critic Dominic LeBlanc.

As pitiful as this matter truly is, it may be a good opportunity to consider another possible reform for the Senate.

The Liberal Senate caucus has yet to explain themselves on this matter. As Dave Rutherford notes, they claim that abolishing the two-for-one sentencing provision is unconstitutional, but they won't explain how or why.

Perhaps the Senate should be reformed to allow provincial legislatures to summon Senators before them to explain themselves. They could finally be required to explain the alleged unconstitutionality of the bill in question, aside from their own say-so.

At the very least, the Alberta legislature would be able to use such powers to summon Joan Fraser to explain how it is she thinks she can dictate the schedule of a provincial Minister.

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