The Opposition Liberals have failed to convince the Progressive Conservative majority on a legislative committee to end the secretive hearings that is reviewing the Official Languages Act.

The Liberals had agreed with the PC majority on the committee to hold the hearings behind closed doors but on Wednesday the Liberals flipflopped after the party's three leadership candidates slammed the decision.

The select committee has been holding meetings this week, but members of the public have been prohibited from listening to the presentations.

si-nb-hedard-albert-220

Liberal MLA Hédard Albert said his party wanted to open up the language committee's hearings. (CBC)

After several witnesses told CBC News this week they had no problem appearing in public, Liberal MLA Hédard Albert says the Liberals decided the secrecy was unnecessary.

Before the meetings started, Albert said he had accepted the Tory line that bilingualism was too delicate an issue for public hearings.

"We believed it at the beginning, and I believed that that subject was controversial, emotional," Albert said.

At Wednesday night's committee meeting, the Liberals introduced a motion that all hearings on the Official Language Act should be public.

But the Progressive Conservatives weren't persuaded and they used their majority on the committee to defeat the Liberal motion on a vote of seven to three.

"But it will not happen. I'm sorry it will not happen," Albert said after the vote.

si-nb-marie-claude-blais-22

Justice Minister Marie-Claude Blais defended the committee's decision to hold the hearings behind closed doors. (CBC)

On Tuesday, Justice Minister Marie-Claude Blais, who is the committee's chairperson, defended the decision to hold the secret hearings.

"This is not an easy subject. We all know in past history how this can bring out — people have different positions, there's a spectrum of positions," she said.

Leadership candidates denounce hearings

The Liberal motion came after the committee following public scrutiny over the secretive hearings.

si-nb-liberal-leadership-220

Liberal leadership candidates: Nick Duivenvoorden, left, Michael Murphy and Brian Gallant. (CBC)

The Liberals also faced internal pressure to try and open up on the committee meetings to citizens.

Michael Murphy, the former Liberal health minister, was the first leadership candidate to call for open hearings.

"One thing I think New Brunswick has learned is that it will not tolerate any form of behind-the-doors consultations," Murphy said.

Nick Duivenvoorden, a former Belledune mayor, also said the public should be able to attend the language hearings.

"People have a right to know as much as possible about you, and about what you think, even about sensitive issues," Duivenvoorden said.

Brian Gallant, a Moncton-area lawyer, also raised questions about the overall process of reviewing the language law behind closed doors.

"It does beg the question of how transparent that process is," Gallant said.

The new Official Languages Act, which was passed in 2002, requires a review every 10 years. The 2002 update was the first time the act had been reviewed since it was passed in 1969.

Various groups have submitted briefs, come to testify in front of the committee and answered questions from MLAs, none of which the public can see.

Giving everyone a chance to talk

A former University of New Brunswick political scientist calls the decision to keep the committee meetings behind closed doors a misstep by politicians.

Don Desserud, the dean of arts at the University of Prince Edward Island, said Thursday that rather than lowering the emotional rhetoric, as Tory members claim, meeting in private is actually making things worse.

He said that while regularly reviewing the legislation is appropriate, the process should get out of closed chambers and involve the public.

"Take this committee on the road, travel the problem; if you want, exhaust the rhetoric. Make sure everyone has a chance to talk and then, once they’ve spoken, do it again until we have everything out there," he said.

"Then I think everyone would calm down and say, ‘that wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. People do have valid points to make and they should be listened to.’"

While he understands wanting to handle the issue carefully, Desserud said that the languages act is too important to ignore the public.

"If these issues are important, and they are, and we have strong beliefs about them, why are we being intimidated, who is intimidating us, what’s going on there?" he said.

"That issue too has to be addressed. It can’t simply be hidden or ducked from. We have to look at those issues head on."

But he said keeping the public in the dark regarding who is in the room and what is being said, or what influence those individuals have, makes people suspicious. 

Desserud submitted a report last year with proposals for legislative reform, including ways to make the committee system better.

NDP Response

New Democratic Party Leader Dominic Cardy said the decision to keep citizens out of the committee's hearings is a serious attack on the fundamental rights of the people of New Brunswick

nb-dominic-cardy-tight-220

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy is criticizing the secretive committee hearings. (CBC)

"It shows the problem with our political culture in New Brunswick, that it’s extremely paternalistic, that our traditional parties have behaved in a way that shows that they have no respect for the people of the province," he said.

"It’s like mom and dad saying, ‘You kids go on outside now and play while we sit down and talk about the important things behind closed doors.’"

Cardy argued that the justifications given for the secretive meetings, such as security risks, don’t fly and rarely arise in provincial politics.

Cardy said as a result of this decision, the public is unaware of where their MLAs stand on the issue.

"The people who are shy are the MLAs because they’re the people we haven’t heard from. We know what all these [advocacy]

groups have said because they’ve made their presentations public," he said.

"But what we don’t know is what the MLAs said in response. We don’t know any of the questions they asked."

He said the languages act is one of the province’s most important pieces of legislation and deserves a public debate.

Cardy also said citizens need to be involved in the political process regularly, not just during elections through their votes, especially with bilingualism, a defining feature of the province.

He accused the Liberals of merely saving face with their motion and knowing it would get voted down. He said the NDP will push for public hearings in the next election.