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 lightweight 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.