To Be or Not to Be an Officer of Parliament, That Is the Question

(Disponible en français : Être ou ne pas être un haut fonctionnaire du Parlement, telle est la question)

The year 2017 produced a new crop of officers of Parliament. New incumbents have been appointed in the roles of Commissioner of Official Languages, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Commissioner of Lobbying and Information Commissioner. In addition, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, a new officer of Parliament, was created through the adoption of amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act.

At the outset, it is important to define exactly what an officer of Parliament is, as well as the difference between an officer of Parliament and an agent of Parliament.

A question of terminology

The terms “officer” and “agent” of Parliament are interchangeable. The first originates in the British parliamentary tradition and continues to be used by the legislative branches of various Commonwealth countries to designate these positions. The second is mainly used by the executive branch, that is, the whole of the departments and agencies of the federal government.

A question of independence

Officers of Parliament carry out duties independent from government. They support Parliament in its government oversight role by reviewing the implementation of legislative measures and by acting as watchdogs and ombudspersons on behalf of citizens in their respective areas of jurisdiction. They report directly to Parliament rather than to the government or a specific minister.

To a certain extent, officers of Parliament must also be independent from Parliament itself. For example, they cannot work under the direction of a parliamentary committee and still maintain their independence. This independence from Parliament is essential to the performance of their duties as officers of Parliament. Public trust in these positions depends on it.

The first officer of Parliament position, that of Auditor General, was established in Canada in 1878 as a corrective measure following the Pacific Scandal. Before that position was made independent, it existed within the Department of Finance. As the chronology below shows, over many decades other such positions were created. Currently, the following nine independent roles are generally considered to be officers of Parliament:

  • the Auditor General;
  • the Chief Electoral Officer;
  • the Commissioner of Official Languages;
  • the Privacy Commissioner;
  • the Information Commissioner;
  • the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner;
  • the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner; and
  • the Commissioner of Lobbying;
  • the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

 A question of definition

There is no federal statutory definition of what constitutes an officer of Parliament. This results in some confusion regarding which positions fall into this category and which “independent” positions newly created by federal law would be considered officers of Parliament.

In the absence of a precise definition of an officer of Parliament, in addition to the independence criteria described above, a list of objective criteria must be used. The four criteria usually applied are as follows:

  • parliamentary involvement in the appointment process;
  • parliamentary involvement in the removal process;
  • a term of office fixed by the legislation establishing the office; and
  • the power to report directly to Parliament.

Each of these criteria is evaluated using the laws that establish and govern these offices. As the table below shows, parliamentary involvement in the appointment and removal processes varies from one office to another; for some, a resolution of both houses of Parliament is required, while for others a resolution of only one house is necessary.

A question of model

Most Commonwealth countries manage the role of officers of Parliament in the same way as Canada. However, the Parliament of New Zealand has adopted a very different approach to officers of Parliament.

In 1992, the Parliament of New Zealand established the Select Committee on Officers of Parliament. This committee is chaired by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and, by convention, all parties with a seat in the House are represented on the Committee.

Under House of Representatives Standing Order 395, this select committee has the mandate to consider and recommend to the House a budget for each officer of Parliament. It is also empowered to recommend to the House the appointment of individuals as officers of Parliament. Finally, any new proposal for the creation of an officer of Parliament position must be reviewed by this committee.

This parliamentary committee therefore serves as a forum for managing the relationship between officers of Parliament and Parliament itself. It also provides an oversight and budgeting mechanism for these offices without the need for legislation. This is an interesting example of parliamentary creativity.

Additional resources

Barnes, Andre, and Élise Hurtubise-Loranger. Appointment of Officers of Parliament. Publication no. 2009-21-E. Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 10 September 2015.

Parliament of New Zealand. “Officers of Parliament and other officers and bodies associated with Parliament,” Chapter 7 in Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, 2017.

Gay, Oonagh and Barry K. Winetrobe. “Officers of Parliament: Transforming the Role,” University College London, Constitution Unit, 2003.

Author: Élise Hurtubise-Loranger, Library of Parliament