House committees: Star Chambers and Gong Shows

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The Gazette, Sunday, May 30, 2010

There are many controversies in Ottawa disconnected from reality, but none more so than the question of whether ministerial staff should appear before parliamentary committees.

In Shakespearian terms, this would be called Much Ado About Nothing.

But it being Ottawa, Stephen Harper's Ottawa, it has been called an abuse of power and contempt of Parliament that ministerial staff will no longer appear before House committees. Instead, only cabinet ministers will appear.

This follows the recent and uneventful appearance before a House committee by the prime minister's chief of staff, Guy Giorno.

A second committee appearance, by Harper's communications director Dimitri Soudas, was cancelled; Transport Minister John Baird was sent in his place as a stand-in for Harper, the same role Baird plays in question period when the PM is absent.

"The days where you can call in 25-year-olds before this committee, to beat up staff who can't defend themselves, are over," Baird told the House ethics committee, which has a well-earned reputation, in Grit as well as Tory times, for running witch hunts.

Government House leader Jay Hill said enough already, no more appearances by staff, who were being bullied by opposition MPs, poor things. From now on, only ministers would testify in committee.

To hear the howls of outrage from the opposition, you'd think it was the death, or at least demeaning, of democracy. But imagine if Hill had announced that henceforth ministers wouldn't appear before committees, only staff would. Now, that would have been a story.

In terms of Westminster rules, Hill and Harper have it exactly right. Ministerial accountability is a central tenet of our system. Only ministers are answerable before the House, though they may be accompanied by deputy ministers and senior officials before committees.

The real issue isn't who should appear before committees, but the composition and comportment of House committees themselves, some of which are run as Star Chambers and Gong Shows.

Parliamentary committees are dysfunctional largely because they're understaffed. Clerks and staff are shared with other committees. There are no counsel or communications directors, as is the case in Washington, where every major House and Senate committee has dozens of permanent staff.

Then there's the question of time. House committees in Ottawa typically sit after question period, and their proceedings are often interrupted by bells ringing for votes in the Commons. A two-hour session is considered long. Members are allocated only seven minutes each, hardly enough time to develop a serious line of questioning.

And then there are behaviourial issues, personified by the New Democrcats' Pat Martin, to cite the most flagrant example of an MP with puritanical propensities on a Cromwellian scale.

Not all committees are as dysfunctional as the House Operations Committee in its recent inquisition on the matter of Rahim Jaffer, who whatever his personal failings was owed a modicum of courtesy as a former member of the House.

For example, the House Finance Committee, under Conservative chair James Rajotte, is a serious place. When Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney appeared there on his economic outlook last month, there were solid and substantive questions from members of all parties. The public interest, and the public process, were well served. The International Trade Committee, under the genial chair of Conservative Lee Richardson, is a collegial exception to the toxic tone of most House committees.

It would surprise many voters to learn that most of the serious committee work in Ottawa is done on the Senate side of Parliament. In 2002, Liberal Senator Michael Kirby's health committee produced a landmark report that included the health-care guarantee on waiting times. The Senate Banking Committee, under former Liberal senator Leo Kolber, produced in only three months a report on bank mergers that remains a standard of excellence and common sense. The Senate Security and Defence Committee, now chaired by Conservative Pamela Wallin, does serious assessments of security and military issues.

Voters are generally unaware, but senior officials, consultants and lobbyists take the work of Senate committees much more seriously than that of House committees, and prepare their and their clients' appearances accordingly.

There are serious questions about parliamentary decorum, as well as privilege. Some of them were raised this past week by Conservative MP Michael Chong. His Tory colleagues are as much to blame as the opposition for the howling atmosphere of question period, and the juvenile statements by members in the 15 minutes beforehand.

In the meantime, MPs shouldn't be allowed to compel ministers' staff to appear before them, at least not before they're compelled to produce their own expenses.

That'll be the day.

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