NDP fights move to make House committee more secret

The NDP is taking on Conservative attempts to move the Official Languages committee behind closed doors with a "marathon of indignation."

Conservative motion at Official Languages would close doors for committee business

A thick fog surrounds Parliament Hill Feb. 1, 2012. NDP MP Robert Aubin is threatening to filibuster Conservative attempts to move the House Official Languages committee behind closed doors. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

NDP MPs say they will fight against Conservative attempts to move the Official Languages committee behind closed doors with a "marathon of indignation."

NDP MPs on the committee are filibustering a Conservative motion to take all the committee's business in camera, or behind closed doors. The motion, put forward by Costas Menegakis, wouldn’t apply to hearing witnesses, but would bar the public and the media from meetings where the committee discusses how it will proceed on issues it's studying.

MPs are not allowed to talk outside of committee about what happens in camera, so going behind closed doors for its discussions would mean no one outside the committee and its staff would know about any motions that don’t pass, or about any of the debates behind them. Debates would be held in secret.

The Conservatives have a majority of MPs on the committee, so such a move would mean their MPs could vote down any opposition motion without the public knowing about it.

In this case, the committee had already gone in camera, but opposition MPs noticed two government MPs had left the room. The opposition had the floor and moved a motion to go public. The committee will stay open until the opposition cedes the floor once again.

NDP MP Yvon Godin says that isn't going to happen Tuesday. Aubin will continue speaking when the meeting starts, he said, followed by NDP MP Dan Harris and then Godin.

Godin says while most Canadians don't watch parliamentary committees, they do tune in when the committees study issues important to them. Plus, he said, "Canadians have the right to know what we work on. They have the right to know the agenda."

Aubin called Thursday for letters of support for him to read at the committee as part of the "marathon of indignation" against the Conservative motion. He calls the move undemocratic and says the opposition will keep reading letters until the government withdraws its motion.

"In our opinion, this is a serious encroachment, an attack even, on the freedom of speech of the parliamentarians who represent [Canadians], and on the foundation of our democratic system.

"This motion will be stopped when the opposition members have exhausted their right to speak or when the governing party withdraws its motion," he said in the release

Jacques Gourde, a Conservative MP on the committee, sent an email to CBC News but didn't explain why the Conservatives want to hold discussions in secret.

"Unfortunately in committee, the opposition is stalling the study of the Roadmap [for Linguistic Duality]. The NDP needs to put aside partisan attacks and get back to this study which will actually help official language minority communities in the future," he said. 

Not the first attempt to close the doors

Harris is trying to change the motion by amending it so that the committee would need "the consent of at least one member of the opposition" or a vote by committee at the start of a meeting where committee business is to be discussed in order to go in camera.

This isn't the first time the Conservatives have tried to move committee work behind closed doors.

Last December, Conservative MP Mike Wallace tried to force the Government Operations committee in camera on all future business. The motion failed because the rules require more notice for a substantive motion than what he'd given.

It is possible to go behind closed doors and eject the public during any Commons committee meeting, but doing so automatically would leave the reasons for conducting meetings in secret much less clear.

Committees usually go in camera only to plan their agenda for the session or to discuss travel and budget issues.

MPs will continue their debate on the motion on Tuesday.

Committee Chair Michael Chong wasn't available to comment, nor was Menegakis.