Trudeau to open doors of top-secret parliamentary committee, give new powers to StatsCan chief

The secretive all-powerful committee that governs members of Parliament will conduct its business publicly for the first time, throwing open the doors to the inner workings of the House of Commons. The government is also increasing the powers and independence of the country's chief statistician, and the parliamentary budget officer.

Government to make Statistics Canada more independent, give more powers to budget watchdog

Speaker of the House Geoff Regan oversees the secretive board of internal economy. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The secretive all-powerful committee that governs members of Parliament will conduct its business publicly for the first time, throwing open the doors to the inner workings of the House of Commons.

The board of internal economy, which adjudicates disputes, sets office budgets and polices the expenses of MPs, among many other responsibilities, will be "open by default," the government announced today.

MPs have faced far less scrutiny over their expenses than senators down the hall, who were subjected to an extensive audit after its equally secretive internal economy committee called in the auditor general, and referred certain members of the Red Chamber to the RCMP.

The change was among a number of non-financial measures buried in Finance Minister Bill Morneau's fall fiscal update released Tuesday.

The committee, chaired by Speaker Geoff Regan, is known for dealing with some of the less savoury elements of federal politics, including when human resources go awry.

In the last Parliament, it helped draft a code of conduct after a number of female NDP staffers came forward alleging sexual harassment by Liberal MPs, men who were ultimately booted from caucus by Justin Trudeau. Its internal review of the situation was kept entirely under wraps, something that might not change even with the new push for transparency.

"In all but exceptional cases involving sensitive or personal information, business of the board of internal economy will be made public," the update said. 

Reforms promised for StatsCan

The government also announced a plan to shore up the independence of Statistics Canada — only weeks after the department's head, Wayne Smith, left, publicly voicing concerns over his lack of control over information technology.

The former Harper government tasked Shared Services Canada with centralizing and running the government's IT, including StatsCan, but its rollout has been bungled by departmental infighting and outdated technology. Shortly after this year's census went live, for example, the website crashed.

Former Chief Statistician Wayne Smith left StatsCan last month while publicly voicing concerns over his lack of control over information technology. (CBC)

Another top statistician, Munir Sheikh, also left in the Harper era, protesting the move to axe the long-form census.

"These proposed amendments will entrench into law the authority of the chief statistician of Canada to make decisions on statistical methodology and the production and release of official statistics, and will ensure transparency around decision-making," the government said in the fiscal update, adding it would table legislation to make these changes.

The update also promised to "increase transparency around decisions and directives by the government," to the national statistics agency but it did not say explicitly what processes would be changed. 

The top statistician will be appointed to fixed five-year renewable terms — something that was previously a matter of convention.

More powers for PBO

The government also pledged to strengthen the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, by separating the office from the Library of Parliament and granting it access to more documents to "truly hold the government to account." (It will also be given more money to hire staff to further comb through the government's books.)

"Like other officers of Parliament, the appointment will be based on merit and approved by Parliament," the update said. 

The PBO, created under Stephen Harper, reviews departmental spending in an attempt to depoliticize analysis of federal budgets and estimates. It has been the source of political headaches, notably when it called into question the former government's contention that it had booked a balanced budget in its last year.

The budget watchdog will also be tasked with assessing the cost of all major party platforms in the next election, to "ensure Canadians have a credible non-partisan way to assess a party's fiscal plans."

Sahir Khan, a former assistant parliamentary budget officer, said this proposal is potentially problematic as it could lead to accusations of bias if the office comes down hard on one party's spending plan.