OTTAWA — Opposition MPs, and even some Conservatives, agree Canada’s parliamentary committee system is broken.
They just don’t agree on what’s gone wrong or who’s to blame.
New Democrats and Liberals say the fault lies with the ruling Tories who are using their majority muscle to turn committees into compliant cheerleaders of government policies and legislation.
Tories maintain the problem is not hyper-partisanship on their side but the fact that there are simply too few government backbenchers stretched too thinly across too many committees to do effective work.
Parliamentary procedures expert Ned Franks says there’s some truth in both sides of the argument.
What’s not in dispute, however, is that members of House of Commons standing committees aren’t doing the kind of in-depth studies of complex issues or probing, clause-by-clause examination of government bills that they were intended to do.
More often than not, they rubber stamp legislation and produce light-weight reports that create few ripples in the parliamentary pond and have little, if any, impact on the government’s agenda. Their toothlessness is in stark contrast to influential, authoritative Senate committees in the United States or Commons committees in Great Britain.
Franks says there’s actually been considerable improvement since parliamentary committees were first created in Canada, with little expectation that they’d ever actually meet or do any work. Reforms, starting in the 1960s, mandated committees to launch studies and examine legislation.
Still, compared to Britain, the U.S. or Australia, he says, “it’s a pretty weak system.”
Indeed, opposition MPs maintain the system has become downright meaningless since the Tories won their coveted majority last May and started using their domination of committees to control their work.
Last week, Liberal MP Mauril Belanger quit the official languages committee, on which he’d served for 17 years. He says the committee has become a waste of time, a wholly partisan exercise in which the Tories summarily reject every proposal from an opposition member and kill off almost-completed studies that don’t suit their agenda.
“Since last May, you’ve got to go in there wearing a full body suit of partisanship,” Belanger grouses.
“The government has decided they’re going to use their majority to block each and every opposition motion. It’s obvious they’re just stalling for time, they have no intention of doing anything serious.”
NDP House leader Nathan Cullen says all opposition MPs share Belanger’s frustration.
He says they’re upset that more and more committee business is being conducted in camera, that witness lists are being rigged to favour the government, that Tory members behave as though government bills are perfect and could not possibly be improved — taking their cue from parliamentary secretaries, effectively proxies for government ministers.
The latter attitude led to a bizarre situation last fall in which Tory committee members rejected Liberal amendments to the government’s vaunted crime bill, only to have Public Safety Minister Vic Toews introduce similar amendments a week later just before the bill was put to a final vote in the Commons. Toews was too late and the amendments had to be added later when the bill was before the Senate.
And Cullen says it’s not just opposition members who are wasting their time on committees; he’s seen Tory backbenchers working on “their emails or crosswords” during meetings.
While he sympathizes with Belanger’s frustration, Cullen says opposition MPs can’t afford to give up. He believes making MPs appear useless is precisely what the government wants, all part of the Conservative strategy to turn progressive voters off politics altogether.
“This is the tactic, to say to progressive voters, ’You don’t count and your representatives don’t count either.”’
Michael Chong, the Tory MP who chairs the official languages committee, agrees that committees “are somewhat less effective than they were in the past.” But he dismisses opposition griping about excessive Tory partisanship.
During the years of minority Tory governments, he says committees were just as partisan but the combined opposition parties controlled the agenda. Now the shoe is simply on the other foot.
The real culprit, as far as Chong is concerned, is that there are too many committees.
“We have way too many committees and members are stretched way too thin …. I can tell you backbench members are struggling to keep up with committee work.”
There are 25 Commons committees, which typically meet twice a week, at least two hours at a time, when Parliament is sitting. The schedule is hardest on the governing party, which is entitled to seven members on each committee, compared to four for the NDP and one for the Liberals. Excluding cabinet ministers, the Tories have roughly 125 backbenchers to fill 175 committee slots; many sit on two committees or are drafted as substitutes on a variety of committees.
Chong compares that to Britain, where there are 500 MPs to fill slots on 35 committees which meet only once a week, or Australia, where there are a similar number of MPs but only 15 committees.
Because they’re stretched too thinly, Chong says Tory MPs arrive at committee meetings unprepared. Under the circumstances, he believes it’s understandable that they may end up deferring to the judgment of parliamentary secretaries, who would be more knowledgeable about the issues at hand.
Chong also contends that committees undertake too many studies, essentially to fill in time when there is no legislation requiring their attention.
“I’m not sure how much of an impact these studies have …. There’s got to be a number that are of less importance than others.”
Franks says he’s long been worried about the excessive number of Commons committees. The whole point of the committee system is to allow a small group of MPs to develop expertise in certain areas and, hence, to provide meaningful, quasi-independent input on legislation and important issues of the day. That can’t happen if MPs don’t have time to learn the files.
While Chong would like to shrink the number of committees, Franks would prefer a reduction in the number of members on each committee.
That said, Franks believes excessive partisanship is the bigger problem underlying the ineffectiveness of Canada’s committee system. And he doesn’t blame the Harper Conservatives for that, at least not exclusively.
“It’s been the Canadian tradition as far back as (1945),” he says, adding that government control over committees does seem to be greater under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s majority rule, but only by “a matter of degree.”
The root of the trouble, as Franks sees it, is the inordinate control party leaders in Canada exercise over their MPs, from their ability to dictate who may run in an election to their power to punish those who break ranks.
Combine that with an MP’s relatively short political career — an average of 10 years in Canada, just over half the average in Britain — and Franks says you’ve got a recipe for committee members who are afraid to challenge their leaders and who never develop the confidence or expertise to speak their own minds.