The committee mob scene on Parliament Hill

Yesterday's Schreiber hearings show limitations of a parliamentary probe

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Friday, November 30, 2007

Karlheinz Schreiber's reprieve from extradition ought to give the Commons ethics committee time next week to ask him all the questions they want about his relations with Brian Mulroney, and anyone else.

It also should give the country a reminder of the inherent weaknesses and structural flaws of the committee system in Parliament, in striking contrast to the congressional committees in the United States.

House and Senate committees in Canada typically have a clerk and a part-time researcher, who is often shared with another committee. There is no legal staff, and no forensic accountants to follow money trails. Communications directors are unheard of. The political parties have no legal or research teams of their own, other than MPs' assistants and thin caucus research resources that are normally devoted to question period.

In Washington, by contrast, committees have dozens and dozens of permanent staff, from majority and minority counsel, to researchers, to communications directors. Hillary Clinton, for example, got her start in Washington as a young aide to the Democrats on the Senate Watergate committee. Fred Thompson, who could conceivably be her opponent in next year's race for the White House, first came to prominence as the minority Republican counsel on the same committee. It was Thompson who, in a deposition of White House aide Alexander Butterfield, brought to light the existence of Richard Nixon's White House tapes, which proved to be the end of that story.

The contrast between the committee systems in Canada and the United States is striking to any MP or senator who has ever visited Washington. For example, when Leo Kolber was chair of the Senate banking committee five years ago, it conducted a lightning series of hearings on the issue of large bank mergers in Canada. I was then working with Kolber on his autobiography, and was struck by what an outstanding job the committee did in a remarkably short period of time - it held extensive hearings of all stakeholders and issued a report within six weeks - especially given its lack of resources. The committee had a part-time clerk and one researcher, who also helped pen the report.

That was on a serious issue of public policy, not a question of personal reputation and private gain, the kind of matter now before the House ethics committee.

The highly charged atmosphere that occurred yesterday is aggravated by the manoeuvring for partisan advantage among four parties in a minority House, all vying for air time. An MP can barely introduce himself to a witness, let alone develop a line of questioning, in the few minutes allotted to each member.

On this committee, the challenge to the Liberal chairperson, Paul Szabo, is to maintain a semblance of decorum and dignity, along with balance and fairness. That wouldn't be easy in any circumstance, let alone the current context, which is highly toxic and potentially ruinous to the reputations of innocent people.

This is because anything can be alleged by MPs and witnesses, under the blanket of parliamentary immunity. Lies and slanders cannot be challenged in a court of law. Parliament is itself the highest court in the land.

Three years ago, in another minority House, the Public Accounts Committee held hearings into the sponsorship scandal, which quickly degenerated into a kangaroo court. The Conservative chairperson of the day, John Williams, behaved like a Roundhead in Cromwell's court. Off with their heads. Conservative MPs, including a former crown attorney named Peter MacKay, made reckless accusations about the Earnscliffe Group, a perfectly respectable consulting firm with ties to Paul Martin. The entire proceeding was a disgrace to Parliament. The low moment came when Myriam Bédard, the Olympic medalist, made preposterous charges about her former employers at Via Rail, and was hailed for her courage in coming forward. As subsequent events proved, she was delusional.

At least the Public Accounts Committee had a document base and story line to work from - the auditor-general's report to Parliament on the sponsorship scandal.

In the present case, the ethics committee has only the word of Schreiber, whose story keeps changing from one affidavit to the next. Moreover, this proceeding could also jeopardize the serious work to be done by the public inquiry that all parties have called for.

And finally, on the extradition and the question of whether the government should have intervened to keep Schreiber in the country, there is a serious constitutional issue of the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches. The judicial process should be allowed to run its course, whatever that might be, without any interference from the legislature through the cabinet. That's something else that's been lost sight of in this mob scene on Parliament Hill.

 
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