Commons Committees Made Relevant?

Choosing a single low point lately for HOUSE OF COMMONS committees isn't easy.

Commons Committees Made Relevant?

Choosing a single low point lately for HOUSE OF COMMONS committees isn't easy. A strong candidate would be Conservative MP Art Hanger, chairman of the justice committee, repeatedly fleeing from his own hearing room, dignity shredded, to shut down proceedings and prevent the committee's opposition majority from launching an inquiry into the Chuck Cadman affair. Then there was Paul Szabo, the Liberal chairman of the ethics committee, meekly stepping aside when former Tory cabinet minister Elmer MacKay haughtily declared that so long as Szabo was presiding, he wouldn't testify about former prime minister Brian Mulroney's dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber. So many committees have been stalled by partisan wrangling that House Speaker Peter Milliken recently wrote an open letter urging parties to end "the crisis in the committee system that is teetering dangerously close to the precipice at the moment."

The episodes that prompted Milliken's unprecedented plea often made committees look silly, weak, and chaotic. Arguably as bad, though, are the long stretches when they appear merely unimportant. Compared to the centralized authority of the Prime Minister's Office, the entrenched influence of senior bureaucrats, and the well-financed clout of cabinet ministers, committees are second-tier institutions in the federal power structure. Perhaps because they are so low-profile, they are often neglected in debate over democratic reform, overshadowed by grand proposals for, say, proportional representation in the House or an elected SENATE. Yet PR is at best a long shot, Senate reform notoriously elusive. Upgrading committees, on the other hand, is a practical possibility, with a potentially big payoff. And with the recent spate of debacles highlighting the need, and a detailed report from Queen's University experts on how to accomplish it slated for release later this spring, the moment for a serious push to make committees matter might finally have arrived.

An advance draft of the Queen's report was provided to Maclean's by the Kingston, Ont., university's Centre for the Study of Democracy. Called "Everything Old is New Again: Observations on Parliamentary Reform," it's the product of a sweeping study of the state of Canadian democracy's core institutions, backed by detailed comparisons with the U.S., Britain, and Australia. Although it makes 20 recommendations - covering everything from the power of the prime minster to the way MPs connect with citizens - the report concentrates on boosting the prestige and power of parliamentary committees.

Thomas AXWORTHY, the centre's chair and the report's main author, goes far beyond old bromides about respect for backbench MPs toiling on worthy committee studies. His ideas cut to the core of Ottawa's real culture of clout. For starters, he says committee chairs need to make as much money as cabinet ministers. "Behaviour will change when committees become meaningful institutions that men and women of ambition can aspire to," said Axworthy, a former policy adviser to prime minister Pierre Trudeau, in an interview. "If they are always regarded as a stepping stone, or a stepping-back stone, then they will always be a backwater."

There's little doubt he's right in his assessment of where committees now fit in Ottawa's aspirational pecking order. An upwardly mobile government MP hopes reliably partisan committee performances will boost his or her chances of scoring a cabinet post in the next shuffle. A former minister, maybe one relegated to opposition, looks at committee work as a way to stay relevant, sort of, until retirement, or while waiting for the next election to offer another chance at a cabinet portfolio. Few MPs, though, regard committee appointments as the pinnacle of their political careers. The contrast with Washington, where Senate and House of Representatives committees are bastions of enormous power, couldn't be starker. But that largely reflects the way the U.S. legislators command their own realm: the presidency is a separate executive branch of government. In Canada, the prime minister rules from inside PARLIAMENT, and his cabinet is made up of parliamentarians, making it impossible for MPs on committees to function independently of prime-ministerial power.

Still, the centre's report proposes several ways to bolster committees, without trying to usurp the PM's primacy. Boosting committee chairs' pay would be a more than symbolic start. They now earn $11,000 on top of their basic MP's salaries of $155,400. That's a far cry from a minister's $74,400 stipend on top of MP's pay. Putting the committee bosses on a pay-scale par with ministers, who act as CEOs of federal departments, would send a new signal about who matters in Ottawa. The report also calls for additional staff for committee chairs, another bid to lift their prestige. "Chairing a committee," Axworthy says, "should be as interesting to members of Parliament as going into cabinet."

If the chairs need to be built up, the committees themselves also require more resources. The report calls for every committee to employ a "core of four or five researchers who are experts in their subject areas." Remarkably, the committees now lack this sort of standing expertise. They each have only one or two dedicated staffers, relying on the Library of Parliament's pool of researchers to be assigned to them as need arises. Bulking up the committees' permanent policy prowess would turn them into viable alternatives to the sprawling departmental bureaucracies as sources of new thinking. "It's not the American model of 30 or 50 or 100 researchers per committee," Axworthy says, "but surely they need more than one."

Beyond giving every committee more policy acumen, Axworthy's blueprint proposes upgrading their ability to scrutinize spending. He points out that MPs have long complained they can't do it properly because of the complexity of the federal budgetary processes. The Conservative government has recently moved to create a new Parliamentary Budget Office, as part of the Library of Parliament, to provide committees with their own source expert insight into spending. Axworthy is worried, though, that the office might not be headed by a senior enough official to properly counterbalance the Finance Department and Treasury Board when it comes to assessing spending. Still, it's a step in the right direction.

Another recommendation is for the House public accounts committee to take on oversight of all government spending on polls and focus groups. Acting on this proposal would send shock waves through official Ottawa: the government spent $31 million on more than 500 polling and focus-grouping projects in 2006-07. The report calls this a "vast consultation apparatus that has nothing to do with Parliament," and goes further than proposing broad oversight. "Any department authorizing a public opinion or focus group contract," it recommends, "should be required to inform the relevant parliamentary committee, before the work has begun."

Considered separately, the report's proposals don't seem revolutionary. But added together, they would move committees from the periphery to the centre of federal influence. Prestigious chairmen, permanent research staffs, and strategic new abilities to probe spending and monitor tactical polling - cumulatively these would be enough to change committees from sideshows to main events. They would continue, of course, their traditional core role of reviewing legislation. But their added heft would give them the ability to propose policy, and more fully and independently analyze bills ministers send their way.

At least one other change, though, would be needed to round out the reform job. Committees taking on special inquiries - such as the ethics committee's hearings into Mulroney's dealings with Schreiber - need a better way of operating. Axworthy's report doesn't make detailed recommendations for inquiries into possible wrongdoing. But Szabo, the ethics committee chair, suggests a new mechanism that would see a special ad hoc committee to undertake this sort of work. The parties would be encouraged to appoint MPs with proven ability to pursue a sustained, coherent line of questioning. Witnesses would be questioned for longer stretches by well-briefed MPs, instead of the current rules that see MPs from each of the four parties taking turns, only a few minutes each, often allowing witnesses to slip away when a tough line of questioning ends abruptly and an unrelated one begins.

The notion of more robust Canadian committees inevitably suggests a shift toward an imperfect U.S. model. Congressional committees can be forums for self-aggrandizement. Axworthy quotes former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. Allan Gotlieb's description of congressmen behaving as "great satraps," and notes a decline in productive bipartisanship in contemporary Washington.

Still, Ottawa's committees need a touch of U.S.-style swagger. Whether the multi-party co-operation required for any real reform could be mustered on today's rancorous Hill, though, is another question. Peter Dobell, founding director of the Ottawa-based Parliamentary Centre, an organization that works with representative assemblies around the world, is skeptical. "I don't think committees can be fixed in this particular Parliament," Dobell says. "You'd have to change the political environment." It's a paradox: the same poisoned climate that has so clearly shown the need for better House committees is also the biggest obstacle to making it happen.

Maclean's April 7, 2008