Concerning Canadian Parliamentary Committees.
I have watched in frustration too many committees both in the House of Commons and in the Senate which are, under this government, completely functions in stupidity.
So I went looking for what committees are supposed to do and looked in both “Beauchesne Parliamentary Rules and Forms” and of course “O’Brien and Bosc”.
From the former I read:
Page 190 Chapter 15 (2)
“Committees receive their authority from the House itself and that authority overrides that of any committee” …Journals Dec 1 1964 pp 941-7
“The speaker has ruled on many occasions that it is not competent for him to exercise procedural control over the committees. Committees are and must remain masters of their own procedure” , Journal Dec 1973 pp709-10
510. It is the duty of all committees to give to the matters referred to them due and sufficient consideration.
From these I deduce that it is Parliament, in the form of the House of Commons (or the Senate I suppose) that gives authority to the committees not the government of the day. But today that authority is usurped by the Harper government majority in all committees in both houses of parliament, and as such committees do not have the mastery of their own procedures any more, nor are they capable of giving matters referred to them sufficient consideration, simply because the Harper government will not allow it. There is such a rush to get things rammed through under this Harper Government that committees cannot spend time to really examine that which they have been entrusted by parliament to examine, amend or even reject. More than the questions, the answers, or even the attitude of the chairperson and members of the committees, is the constraint of time. More and more the chairperson is reminding members that their time is up when they are only just getting the presenters (specially the Ministers when they bother to appear) to the point of giving real answers. How can they make a real decision if they can’t get the answers they seek because they don’t have time? Does this lack of time come from the PMO or parliament? Is it not time for committee members to stand up and ask those questions not only of the chair of the committee but of parliament itself. Combine this lack of time with the lack of ability to make amendments or even suggestion there is an inevitable air of frustration appearing because members cannot fulfill their mandates.
On the matter of “In Camera” sittings, a very common practice today…
Page 199 (1)
“A committee having the right to exclude strangers at any time, it may be inferred, has the right to sit in private and have its proceedings protected by privilege. The publication of its proceedings in that case would be an offense which the House could deal with upon receiving a report from the committee.”
The purpose of the in camera sittings is to allow the members to feel free to negotiate, discuss, deliberate and, sometimes, compromise without the glare of publicity which might add to the difficulties of agreeing to reports when it is desirable for those proceedings to be treated in confidence. The final decision of whether to sit in camera, however, rests with the members themselves” …. Journals June 21 1955 pp781-2
To say the least, interesting.
Then from O’Brien and Bosc comes this quote to open the chapter on Committees:
“Experience has shown that smaller and more flexible committees, when entrusted with interesting matters, can have a very positive impact on the development of our parliamentary system, upgrade the role of Members of Parliament, sharpen their interest and ultimately enable this institution to produce much more enlightened measures that better meet the wishes of the Canadian people.”
Yvon Pinard, President of the Privy Council
(Debates, November 29, 1982, p. 21071
Obrien and Bosc has pages of information on the various committees and their functions, which I will not reproduce here but can be seen at:
for anyone who wants to check it out.
It is interesting to see how far we have come in the last few years from functional committees to complete dysfunctionality.
By this I mean that committees were established all those centuries ago to ensure that all elected members had a say in what happened, and what was right and good for the people of, in this case, Canada. Rules were established to ensure that partisanship was not prevalent, and even in the original ‘Committees of the Whole’ in the UK any member could talk as often as he wanted, provided he kept to the subject.
Thus it was with some interest that I tuned in to CPAC today (Friday 6th April 2012) to the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates and there were two consecutive quests: Robert Marleau, a past clerk of the HOC, and John Williams a past MP and past chairman of that committee.
What they had to say rang a strong bell with me as I have believed for some time now that the HOC and Senate committees are a total waste of time.
I do not believe that in this 41st parliament either a motion or amendment proposed by the members of the opposition has been accepted, and all amendments or motions (including going into camera) from the government side have been automatically accepted.
So when the above gentlemen suggested to the members of this committee that they could indeed serve their constituents and help to keep the government answerable to parliament (under whose authority they actually exist) my interest was peeked.
It seems that this particular committee has some teeth, should they choose to exercise them, to hold government accountable as to why they are carrying out, or demolishing, certain programs and can indeed call the Ministers into the chamber of the House of Commons to answer their questions in front of the House on any sitting Wednesday at 1 pm.
What I found interesting in this committee was that there only appeared to be one excessive disciple of Mein Herr Harper, and the questions asked by members indicated a genuine interest in doing something about the present partisan nonsense that exists both in this committee and all the others.
Both Marleau and Williams suggested to the Committee on Government Operations and Expenses that they should examine their mandate and decide what they wanted to do to be effective. Williams suggested they should go in camera to do this.
Of course I had to check out their mandate and I found it had changed a bit since 2006 – what a surprise !
In 2006 this is how it started:
The mandate of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates enhances the traditional “government operations” committee mandate that focused on central agencies, with two innovations:
• First, it reflects recommendations of the 1998 Report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (Catterall-Williams Report), by locating, within a single committee, broad responsibilities relating to the supply process, and financial reporting to Parliament by government organizations.
• Second, it reflects the new importance of information and communication technologies, as an aspect of government operations having potentially transformative impacts on all aspects of governance.
Then in 2011 that had disappeared and was replaced with this:
Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates Then (OGGO)
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41st Parliament, 1st Session
June 2, 2011 – Present
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About this Committee
Pursuant to paragraph 108(3)(c) of the House of Commons Standing Orders, the mandate of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates includes primarily the study of:
• the effectiveness of government operations;
• expenditure budgets of central departments and agencies;
• format and content of all Estimates documents;
• cross-departmental mandates – programs delivered by more than one department or agency;
• new information and communication technologies adopted by the government;
• statutory programs, tax expenditures, loan guaranties, contingency funds and private foundations deriving the majority of their funding from the Government of Canada.
The Committee is specifically mandated to examine and conduct studies related to the following organizations, whose operational responsibilities extend across the government:
Central Agencies and Departments
• Privy Council Office/Prime Minister’s Office
• Treasury Board Secretariat
• Public Works and Government Services Canada
Organizations Related to Human Resources Matters
• Public Service Commission
• Public Services Human Resources Management Agency of Canada
• Canada School of Public Service
• Office of the Governor General
• Public Service Labour Relations Board
• Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat
• Canada Lands Company
• Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
• Canada Post Corporation
• Defence Construction (1951) Limited
• Old Port of Montréal Corporation Inc.
• Public Sector Pension Investment Board
• Queens Quay West Land Corporation
• Royal Canadian Mint
Bearing in mind that all the authority of this committee is from parliament, not the Government, there is potential here for some good if the members were to decide to look after the interests of Canadians and ensure that by choosing a few programs and concentrating upon them and determining if they are effective, or why they were cancelled etc., and forcing the Minister to defend his/her decision in the House perhaps we could see a change in some of the more ideological decisions this Harper government is making. Question is as always will Harper allow it to happen, or will he insist that his MPs are obedient to him, not loyal to the House and therefore Canadians?
Can you really see this committee being allowed to look at the ‘cooked’ books of the Privy Council, the PMO, the Treasury Board or even the office of the Governor General (cooked or otherwise)? I don’t think so either.
The fact is that time and again in this 41st parliament committees are a joke when you consider what they are supposed to be.
On about 12th March comes this:
“This week’s “clause-by-clause” review had left 39 amendments on the table: 17 from the NDP, 14 from the Liberals and eight from the Tories. Geist’s personal blog has a quick summary of the proposed amendments by party, but upon the conclusion of the review, the eight government amendments were successfully added while the 31 opposition amendments were effectively shelved.” Chase Kell of Yahoo News.
This summary of Bill C-11 committee states well the practices of present committees and their partisan destruction of both parliamentary ideals and what little democracy we have remaining here in Canada.
So what is my summary? The basic context of committees developed over the centuries is sound, but the makeup of them in Canada today is absolutely unbalanced and thus not representative of the Canadian people and thus the parliament of Canada. Let’s not confuse the parliament of Canada with the government of the day. 39% of the people who voted in 2011 did so for the Corporate Party of Canada and thus they should have no more than 39% of the members of the committees, and the chairpersons who should be none voting. Percentage of votes would be a better representation on decison making committees than number of seats of various parties, specially when there are two parties represented in the House that are excluded from committees.
This would have two results:
Firstly, bad legislation for the people of Canada would be rejected at this level and therefore cause better legislation to be proposed for Canadians by this present government.
Secondly, there would be ample time given to actually examining the Bills that will make a difference in the lives of Canadians resulting in the will of the people having a better chance of being complied with.
The chances of this happening under any government of Canada, never mind this one which is ideologically bound to destroy Canada anyway, is very unlikely as no government has the gumption to put itself up for real examination by the people of Canada, which is of course the basis of democracy.
Unfortunately we do not have democracy here in Canada.
23rd April 2012