House of Commons committees off to scrappy, skeptical start

The Liberal government promised to strengthen Parliamentary committees. But so far, they aren't doing much at all, thanks to an emerging battle over how much power MPs from the NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Green parties should have.

Government motion to set up finance committee blocked, House affairs committee hung up

Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc's attempt to kickstart two priority committees was thwarted Thursday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Liberal government came to power promising to strengthen Parliamentary committees. 

But so far, committees aren't doing much at all, thanks to an emerging battle over how much power MPs from the NDP, Bloc Québécois and Green parties should have.

It's a fight that threatens to curtail the early ambitions of Justin Trudeau's government, starting with the ability of MPs to influence next spring's federal budget through finance committee hearings.

It also nearly thwarted a special joint committee to advise the government on legislation for assisted dying, in response to the Supreme Court's striking down of a federal law last winter.

Last week, the government requested a six-month extension to comply with the ruling. The committee needs to move fast and report by Feb. 26.

And then there's the committee that oversees the work of all others — including the Liberals' planned committees on national security oversight and electoral reform.

That bogged down this week when a parliamentary secretary turned up at the procedure and House affairs committee, in apparent contravention of a Liberal promise, and it became clear New Democrats lacked faith in the Liberals' vows of change.

Bloc blocks consent

With time short before Christmas break, Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc on Thursday attempted to bypass regular channels and get unanimous consent in the Commons for two things:

  • Proposed membership of the Commons finance committee.
  • Terms for setting up the special House and Senate joint committee on physician-assisted dying.

When the voice vote was held, calls from the corner where Bloc MPs sit denied unanimous consent for both.

"We want to sit on the committee. We have things to say," BQ MP RhéalFortin told reporters, arguing rules should change to allow other MPs to do more than just observe. "We can observe on TV," he said.

"There are 10 [BQ] members representing over one million persons in our ridings. I think those million persons are Canadian too and they have the right to be heard in that Parliament."

"The Bloc Québécois clearly was unhappy with the election result on the 19th of October," LeBlanc said in a scrum of his own. "They knew what the rules were."

LeBlanc said, however, the Liberals were open to giving the Bloc more opportunities to speak. 

When the government House leader rose to try again on Friday, the assisted dying committee was no longer blocked by the Bloc.

But the bid to get a finance committee up and running so it could hold cross-country budget consultations in January was denied again.

Secret ballots pick chairs

"Better government starts with better ideas," the Liberal election platform read, pledging secret-ballot elections for committee chairs and an end to ministers or parliamentary secretaries directing committees.

But the Liberals have their majority. And when translated into a percentage of committee seats, that means six on the 10-member committees named so far. The now-opposition Conservatives have three, the now-third party NDP only one.

These are very, very early and sunny days, but I've been in five different Parliaments and I've seen that sunny ways lead to stormy ways- NDP MP Charlie Angus

The Official Opposition has chaired some committees in the past, like public accounts and ethics.

But with the new secret ballot elections, would Liberals back an opposition MP for chair?

The BQ doesn't even sit on committees because it doesn't have official party status. (That requires 12 MPs. They have only 10.)

Same goes for Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, a party of one.

Any MP can attend public committee meetings and speak. But only members propose motions, vote or write reports and recommendations.

'This is not going to work, man'

Only one committee, procedure and House affairs, met this week. Its members, set by party House leaders, have 10  sitting days from the start of a new Parliament to form the other committees. (Five days now remain.)

The chair was elected last Tuesday by secret ballot, as promised.

NDP MP David Christopherson used to chair the public accounts committee in the last Parliament. Now he's bringing a skeptical point of view to the proceedings at procedure and House affairs. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But trouble began when LeBlanc's parliamentary secretary, Kevin Lamoureux, turned up: not as a voting member, but sitting at the table (as any MP has a right to do).

"Given that the government says they want to do more work by committee, where members can be more and more independent, I fail to see how his presence today supports that goal," NDP vice-chair David Christopherson said, while acknowledging Lamoureux had switched seats to position himself in a less-influential spot.

"I'm sorry. This is not going to work, man." he said.

"I have a vested interest in this particular committee," Lamoureux explained, later adding he wasn't sure what role he was supposed to play now.

"I'm here to complement the members who are on the committee, and nothing more than that," he said.

"The fact of the matter is you're here to ride shotgun on behalf of the PMO to make sure this committee does exactly what the prime minister wants. And guess what? That's the way it was the last time," Christopherson said.

'I would love to trust you all'

And so it went, bogging down over who'd serve on the steering committee to set the committee's agenda. A motion specified five members: the chair, the vice-chairs and two more Liberals.

Christopherson proposed an amendment: only one Liberal, meaning the steering committee would not be dominated by government MPs. He said it should make decisions by consensus, not majority votes.

A second New Democrat, Charlie Angus, turned up to back Christopherson. (He, like the parliamentary secretary, wasn't on the committee.)

"Mr. Lamoureux, it's great to see you in the House. It will be great to see you off this committee," Angus said.

"I would love to trust you all," Angus said. "These are very, very early and sunny days, but I've been in five different Parliaments and I've seen that sunny ways lead to stormy ways...."

Angus said he was tired of partisanship and wanted to ratchet it down. But: "we're not going to build the peaceable kingdom out of here," he said.

And there was no peace. The committee met for two hours but couldn't form its steering committee.

Speaking to CBC News Friday, chair Larry Bagnell wasn't surprised. "I've seen it before," the veteran Liberal MP said.

Even if they had passed other motions, he said — such as the one that typically allows party whips to name members to other committees — it's not clear the Bloc would have allowed that to pass the Commons, either.

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