OTTAWA — Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have been accused of using their majority to hide too much House of Commons committee business behind closed doors.
But an analysis of Library of Parliament data for the last decade shows the championship title for secretive committee work actually belongs to former prime minister Paul Martin’s Liberals.
Harper’s Tories aren’t even the runners up; that honour goes to another Liberal regime, under Jean Chretien.
The analysis of meetings from which the public was barred — known as going in camera — shows MPs deliberated in secret for an average of close to two hours a day during Martin’s first and only majority session of Parliament in 2004.
According to figures provided by the Library of Parliament, committees spent close to 215 hours meeting in camera, an average of one hour and 56 minutes a day over the 111 days of that short parliamentary session.
The session, which ran from February to May 2004, is notable for being the last time the Liberals held a majority in Parliament. Martin succeeded Chretien as Grit leader at the end of 2003.
He inherited a scathing report from the auditor general into the sponsorship scandal. Martin appointed Justice John Gomery to head up a public inquiry into how the sponsorship program was handled.
The auditor general’s report also triggered an inquiry before the Commons public accounts committee. Figures show public accounts spent 18 hours in camera — half that of the joint parliamentary committee on national security, which spent more than 36 hours in secret deliberations.
But MPs on the public accounts committee never got to finish their work because the Grits used their majority to shut down hearings weeks before Canadians went to the polls.
The Liberals lost their majority in the federal election of June 2004.
The second-most secretive session for parliamentary committees was the one immediately before Martin’s short-lived Grit majority. During Chretien’s final 2002-03 parliamentary session, MPs spent an average of one hour and 12 minutes a day in camera over the session’s 408 days.
The Conservatives occupy third place on the in-camera list.
During the final 2010-11 session of Harper’s minority government, committees spent close to 455 hours meeting behind closed doors during the 388-day session, which averages out to one hour and 10 minutes a day.
The Conservatives won their coveted majority government last May. As of Friday, their first majority session has lasted 343 days and committees have so far spent nearly 328 hours in camera. That averages out to about 57 minutes a day in private meetings.
Put another way, the 57-minute average is seventh on the list of 10 parliamentary sessions since 2001.
“Despite the false claims from the Liberals and the NDP, we know that under our government, committees have functioned according to normal practice,” a spokeswoman for Conservative whip Gordon O’Connor said in an email.
But Liberal House leader Marc Garneau called it misleading to simply tally up time spent in camera. He said the Tories are using their majority to move committee business that used to be public behind closed doors.
“It’s when you’re trying to go in camera because you want to hide something, because you don’t want the public to see how individual members vote, or because you don’t want the public or the media to see the debate that may be doing on, or because you just don’t want to deal with a particular issue,” Garneau said.
“That’s when it’s wrong. And that is something that we have criticized the government for doing since it has obtained its majority.
“So I think that’s really more the fact than the specific number of total minutes, which may be perfectly explainable in terms of what activities were going on.”
Others have complained the Conservatives are stacking committee witness lists in camera, so opposition MPs can’t complain publicly without violating confidentiality. Liberal MP Scott Andrews recently threatened to disclose in-camera discussions outside the committee room.
The public and the media are barred from in-camera meetings.
The House of Commons manual on procedure and practice says in-camera meetings may be held “on occasion” to deal with administrative matters, to consider a draft report or to receive a briefing.
Committees may also meet in camera to deal with confidential documents or other sensitive matters.
The Library of Parliament figures show the most secretive committee is fisheries and oceans. MPs on that committee spent close to 217 hours meeting in camera since 2001.
Second is the public accounts committee, where MPs spent more than 165 hours behind closed doors.
Elected officials spent less time discussing defence and security matters in private. The national defence and national security committees spent close to 131 hours in camera.
Parliamentary procedures expert Ned Franks cautions against reading too much into the individual committee figures.
“There’s a correlation between ones that write a lot of reports and decide on witnesses a lot, and the number of in-camera meetings,” he says.
“And those who don’t have that much of an agenda … are going to have fewer.”