Inside Politics

NDP bid to limit secret committees would put in camera votes on the record

As my intrepid CBC News colleague Laura Payton reports, the New Democrats are kicking off the new session by taking aim at what they call the "abuse of secrecy in committee meetings" by proposing new measures that would limit the use of in camera provisions to matters dealing with wages, salaries and other administrative and staffing issues, as well as draft reports and briefings on matters of national security.

Here's the full text of the motion, which the party plans to put forward at each and every House committee:

That the Committee may meet in camera only for the purpose of discussing:

(a) wages, salaries and other employee benefits;

(b) contracts and contract negotiations;

(c) labour relations and personnel matters;

(d) draft reports;

(e) briefings concerning national security; and

That all votes taken in camera be recorded in the Minutes of Proceedings, including how each member voted when recorded votes are requested.

As long-time (and, likely, even occasional) readers know, the in camera-fication of the committee system is an issue near and dear to my parliamentary wonkish heart, so it goes without saying that I would endorse pretty much any measure that would make closed-door confabs the exception rather than the rule.

However, I find myself particularly intrigued by the proposal to record all votes that may be taken on the presumably rare occasion that a committee does go dark  -- "including how each member voted."

A bit of background: At the moment, in camera minutes are frustratingly short on such details, as only decisions that were actually taken by the committee-- which generally means motions that were passed during the secret session -- included in the eventual report.

Defeated motions, as well as those that, for whatever reason, haven't yet been disposed of are not listed. In fact, MPs are forbidden from  ever discussing them outside the confines of the committee room  -- even when if it involves a motion that was originally introduced in public.

In fact, in recent times, a favoured tactic employed by opposition members is to tack on a notice of motions at the end of a round of questions for a witnesses, which almost always triggers a government member to interrupt them -- frequently in mid-sentence -- to move that the meeting be taken in camera.

In any case, even if the Conservatives are -- as they almost certainly will be -- reluctant to impose voluntary restrictions on clandestine proceedings, they may want to give serious consideration to offering a compromise by agreeing to allow the production of more informative minutes.

At the very least, such a compromise would preserve the inter-party collegiality ostensibly encouraged by holding discussions off the official record, while simultaneously ensuring that their constituents, and the Canadian public at large, have at least some idea of what went down behind closed doors -- namely, what, if anything, was on the table, and how the vote(s) broke down.

Committees should start getting back to business early next week, which means we won't have to wait long to find out how the government intends to respond to the NDP offer. 

Stay tuned! 

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