C-51 hearings a real-time demonstration of committee dysfunction

A few years ago, it was as close to what passes on Parliament Hill as an article of faith that committees — as opposed to the House of Commons chamber — were where real parliamentary business was done. You don't hear that argument very often anymore. Kady O'Malley explains why.

Committees could be fixed immediately and without rewriting House of Commons rules

Justice Minister Peter MacKay, left, and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, right, arrive at the House public safety committee meeting on Bill C-51. The committee has been rife with controversy over procedural matters. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A few years ago, it was as close to what passes on Parliament Hill as an article of faith that committees — as opposed to the House of Commons chamber — were where real parliamentary business was done.

You don't hear that argument very often anymore.

These days, House committees offer little more than a reprise of the same partisan theatrics on display during question period, recast to pit parliamentary secretaries against opposition backbenchers before a slightly smaller live studio audience.

Nowhere has that been more evident than during the public safety committee review of the government's proposed anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51, which began under a cloud of procedural uncertainty after the Conservatives used their majority muscle to override the chair to force an end to a NDP-powered filibuster. The New Democrats had been protesting the Conservatives' attempt to limit witness testimony.

The first day of hearings saw an outburst of bickering among committee members — and, at one point, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney got involved — over who did or didn't extend an invitation to the federal privacy watchdog. 

The final meeting of the week ended amid accusations of "McCarthy-esque" attacks on witnesses.

CBC colleague James Fitz-Morris chronicled his frustration with the current process last week, and it's hard to dispute his conclusion that so far, Bill C-51 hearings have been little more than a series of monologues reverberating in an echo chamber.

But on the plus side — and for a true parliamentary Pollyanna, there is always a plus side — the sorry state of the Bill C-51 review to date provides a perfect jumping off point to put forward three relatively quick and easy fixes to the current mechanics that could be implemented without rewriting the rules of the House of Commons:

1. More transparency in planning

At one time — likely the same era that committees were regularly lauded for their nonpartisan industriousness — it made sense for MPs to retreat behind closed doors to discuss what the agenda traditionally refers to, somewhat obliquely, as "committee business." That could range from arranging travel for out-of-town hearings to selecting expert witnesses for an upcoming study.

The point was to allow committee members to work towards consensus in private, rather than divide down party lines.

With a few exceptions, those days are long gone.

In the current political climate, the cloak of parliamentary secrecy now serves only to protect MPs — opposition and government alike — from explaining, and in some cases, defending, their actions.

It is still unknown why federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien was left off the Bill C-51 witness list. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
We still don't know exactly why federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien was left off the Bill C-51 witness list. It's likely we will never know.

All we know is his name appeared on the proposed lists submitted by both the New Democrats and the Liberals, and, as of last week, he hadn't received an invitation.

By opening up the process to the public, or even providing more detailed minutes for in-camera planning sessions, there will be less confusion over which witnesses were backed — or blocked — by which parties.

2. More time for witnesses, clause-by-clause review

It's standard to allow witnesses 10 minutes for opening statements. But the prepared remarks could just as easily be distributed as a handout. 

The C-51 study has shone a glaring light on the fundamental inefficiency of spending so much time on opening statements, with a witness schedule that packs in three witnesses per panel and one panel per hour. The allotted time is half gone by the time the committee gets to MP questions.

Add to that the 10 minutes given to each party for its opening round of questions — which nearly always include at least a minute of rambling and repetitive preambles from MPs— and it's easy to see where some cuts could be made.

Halving the time allotted for witness statements and reducing the opening rounds to, say, seven minutes per party would go a long way to encouraging both MPs and witnesses to stay focused, while nearly doubling the time available for actual discussion around the committee table.

Witnesses would, of course, be welcome to file more detailed written submissions — which, in an ideal world, could then be posted online to ensure that everyone following a particular study would have access to the same material provided to MPs.

In theory, this could also allow MPs to take a more considered approach when it comes time to move onto clause-by-clause review. In recent years, it seems like the longer the bill, the shorter the turnaround time imposed by the government for reporting back to the House.

In the case of C-51, that deadline is March 31, which will likely give MPs only a few hours to go through more than 70 pages of fine print — including any debate over proposed amendments.

3. More power for chair

Finally, if MPs want to discourage the kind of confrontational approach employed by Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy in her exchange with National Council of Canadian Muslims executive director Ihsaan Gardee last week, they should give the chair more leeway to intervene when the questions seem to be veering over the line between lively discussion and ad hominem attacks.

Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy was accused of 'McCarthyesque' questioning at the House public safety committee by the head of a Canadian Muslim civil liberties group. (CBC )
Depending on the nature of the offence, the chair could either direct them back to the topic at hand, or, if warranted, cut them off entirely and move on to the next speaker.

Given how self-conscious most MPs tend to get about being singled out for rebuke, even the threat of having their knuckles publicly rapped could be enough to keep them in line.

Committees could also put some parameters on when the chair can be overruled by a simple majority, and when to require, say, the support of MPs from at least two parties to do so.


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