Parliamentary Committees I: The (mostly) civilized polar opposite of Question Period

Up front, I have to note that I worked as a committee staff member (specifically, I was an economist with the Parliamentary Research Branch of the Library of Parliament) from 1999 to 2005. In other words, I have no direct experience with the minority governments of Paul Martin and Stephen Harper. The fact that the dynamics of committees are different under a minority government – the government controls the chair but not a majority of committee members – and that the current government is actively working to undermine the committee process, means that some of my experiences will not be directly comparable to today’s situation.

That said, much of the mechanics of committee work remains unchanged. I hope that they will provide an overview of how committees work and a benchmark against which one can compare the current committee setup.

Onward, then…

If you’re fascinated by politics and interested in public policy, but would rather not outsource your higher brain functions to the Party, there is no better job in Ottawa than working for a parliamentary committee, which I did for six years. While Question Period is, unfortunately, the public face of Parliament, the actual legislative and public-policy work of Parliament happens in committees. It’s here that MPs and Senators study issues, hold hearings and review legislation. In order for any bill to get passed, be it new banking rules or anti-terrorism legislation, it has to be approved by the appropriate House and Senate committees, after hearing from witnesses and debating it (to what degree depends on the issue). As a non-partisan staff member, committee staffers have a front-row seat to the best show in town. As my old boss used to say, since you’re non-partisan, you get to be close enough to the action to see everything go down, but far enough away that when the bombs go off, you’re not hit by the shrapnel.

Interest groups – lobbyists, activists, think tanks and the like – pay attention to what’s going on in committees. And if these groups are paying attention, it probably means that the average citizen might be better served taking a gander at a boring regular committee meeting instead of being distracted by the freakshow that passes for Question Period.

While much of the lobbying that happens in Ottawa occurs behind the scenes, in meetings with civil servants and ministers, committee hearings offer Canadians the most transparent means of finding out who wants what and where the parties stand on various issues (for reasons I’ll got into in another post, committee members usually march in lockstep with the will of the party, which means the will of the Leader). Without committee hearings, we would be reduced to relying on unverifiable (and potentially untrustworthy) leaks to favoured journalists and press releases issued at the government’s discretion. In contrast, committee hearings on issues both profound and mundane give our elected representatives the chance to grill lobbyists and activists and to question the bureaucrats and ministers. And while committees don’t always get to the bottom of some issues, and while they can be thwarted when the members and parties do not act in good faith, they more often than not get the job done, away from the spotlight.

At their best, committees are dull and pedestrian and vitally important to the maintenance of our democracy. When it comes to recommending specific courses of action, you can be sure that MPs act like partisans – they do, after all, have very different, honestly held, views of what is best for Canada – but committee work (again, when everyone is working in good faith) also involves by necessity a degree of cooperation among the members of all parties. Committee chairs sometimes exert/abuse their power by ramming through certain things, and opposition members can be obstinate to the point of extreme annoyance, but at the end of the day everyone has to work together, requiring a certain base degree of civility.

In other words, it’s nothing at all like Question Period.

That’s the idealized version of committees, and it’s a credit to those involved that committees often (in my experience) live up to this ideal, usually when it involves what are seen as technical issues or in the rare case when all parties are in general agreement. In other cases, it’s been my experience that committee chairs often work to achieve some degree of consensus within their caucus and among opposition members, even if they don’t always get it.

There are problems as well, but not necessarily from the committee members themselves, most of whom are at the very least attentive to the concerns of their constituents. (I’m speaking of MPs. Senators aren’t beholden to voters, and it often shows.) Instead, ever-increasing party control, the “friendly dictatorship” nature of majority governments, endemic understaffing and (under the current government) an active campaign to ensure that committees do not function well all prevent parliamentary committees from completely fulfilling their role as the public’s voice in the lawmaking process.

I’ll try to tackle those issues in later postings. Next up (tentatively, and hopefully within a week), a run-down of who’s actually on these committees.

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