Politics·Analysis

Prime ministers don't often testify at parliamentary committees, but maybe they should

Whether or not there is an urgent need for Trudeau to appear forthwith to discuss in greater detail his time on the Aga Khan's private island, there is perhaps something to be said for regularly putting the prime minister in the witness chair of a committee hearing.

In Britain, the prime minister is expected to appear periodically to discuss government business

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

You surely can't fault Conservative MPs for trying.

At the very least, asking the ethics committee to call on the Prime Minister ensures another headline or two about Justin Trudeau's fateful vacation with the Aga Khan.

Were Liberal members of the committee to actually agree with the Conservative proposal, it would set the stage for an extraordinary hearing with a sitting prime minister. And even if the Liberals reject the request, Conservatives will be able to lament that the prime minister is not being properly held to account.

So either way, the Conservatives will get something out of Tuesday's meeting of the ethics committee, when their motion is to be considered.

But whether or not there is an urgent need for Trudeau to appear forthwith to discuss in greater detail his time on the Aga Khan's private island, there is perhaps something to be said for regularly putting the prime minister in the witness chair of a committee hearing.

It has been awhile since a PM testified

In proposing that Trudeau appear before the ethics committee, the Conservatives could point to a Liberal motion in 2013 that called for Stephen Harper to testify before the ethics committee about Nigel Wright's payment to Senator Mike Duffy.

Of course, in rejecting this new motion, Liberals could point to the fact that Conservatives voted unanimously against the Liberal proposal, thus ensuring its defeat.

Partisan politics and changes in government tend to produce such ironies.

But regardless, prime ministerial appearances before parliamentary committees are exceedingly rare. The last such appearance was more than a decade ago: in September 2006, Harper appeared before a Senate committee to make clear how committed he was to reforming the upper chamber.

Other cabinet ministers make appearances to testify, usually for an hour at a time, about legislation they have tabled or the spending plans of their departments. Official questioning of the prime minister is limited to question period, though Trudeau now sets aside most Wednesdays to take all questions posed in a 45-minute session.

But if the possibility of a prime minister submitting to a committee hearing holds some allure, it is likely something to do with the fact that question period is not generally a forum for careful discussion or the exchange of information, what with the short 35-second limits on interventions, the constant noise of shouting and clapping and the general air of poorly staged theatre.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been found guilty of a federal ethics violation. Canada's ethics watchdog ruled Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act when he vacationed on a private island owned by the Aga Khan last Christmas 3:37

The relatively civilized world of committee work

It is in House of Commons committees that the more serious work is often thought to be done. Witnesses are afforded ten minutes to make an opening statement. MPs take five to seven minutes at a time to ask questions. Everyone is seated. There is little in the way of unnecessary noise. Light refreshments and snacks are served. 

It's all a bit more civilized, even if it is all still very political. And the greater time can allow for closer questioning, or at least make it a bit more glaring when answers are evaded.

But if there's a case for having the prime minister sit for such a session, then the possibility perhaps shouldn't just be a card for the opposition to play when the mood strikes.

Since 2002, for instance, the British prime minister has made regular visits to the British parliament's liaison committee, a committee composed of the chairpersons of all other committees. (The Canadian parliament also has a liaison committee, mostly for the handling of administrative matters.)

Theresa May made an appearance two weeks ago, during which she took questions about Brexit for an hour and a half. May's predecessors typically appeared on a biannual basis.

The value of any parliamentary inquiry will always depend on the quality of the questions asked and the degree of enlightenment provided by the responses. But every public interrogation of the prime minister has at least the potential for insight.

Trudeau himself, for that matter, seems to believe there is something useful about such forums, initiating that prime minister's question period and participating in public town halls (a new round of town halls is set to begin next week).

Making an annual visit to one of Parliament Hill's august committee rooms — both the Reading Room and the Railway Room in Centre Block are quite lovely — would be a logical extension of those efforts.