Opposition attacks motion to make Commons committee debate private

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau seen in this 2010 file photo. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The federal Conservative government is trying to move more of the debate at Commons committees behind closed doors – a tactic that opposition members deride as another effort by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to limit what Canadians know about the conduct of their Parliament.

“I think it’s part of an agenda to almost codify a closed system,” Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau told reporters on Wednesday. “Parliament is moving further and further away from the notion that the 308 people elected by the people of Canada are supposed to be the voice of this country, and this is because of the overpowering control of the Prime Minister and his office.”

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Mr. Garneau was responding to an attempt on Tuesday by Conservative MP Mike Wallace to require all future business of the government operations committee to be conducted in private. Mr. Wallace tried to introduce a motion that would force the public to leave the room whenever the committee is determining such matters as which witnesses to call and what subjects to investigate.

The clerk of the committee temporarily thwarted the effort, saying Mr. Wallace’s motion was “substantive,” so other members would need to be given advance notice before it could be put to a vote.

Mr. Wallace indicated that he would do this. The Conservatives hold a majority on all Commons committees and can pass almost any measure they please.

The Liberals and the New Democrats say they have heard that Mr. Wallace’s move was just the beginning of Conservative attempts to have business at all Commons committees conducted in private. A motion to go in camera was made at the Commons official languages committee on Tuesday, to the opposition’s chagrin.

Mr. Wallace said in a telephone interview that witnesses at the government operations committee would still be heard in public.

“But then we go in camera to discuss who we are going to invite next and what study we are going to do, all that kind of stuff,” he explained. “It gives members of Parliament an opportunity to speak frankly about what should be next for the committee to study.”

In fact, much of the technical business of some committees is already conducted in camera.

Joe Comartin, the NDP House Leader, said the Conservatives are proposing “a very significant expansion” in the committee work that is done in private.

It is normal that witness lists would be drawn in camera because the discussion covers personalities and qualifications and capabilities, Mr. Comartin said

But “what they’re talking about here is all debate that goes on, unless there is a witness before the committee, everything else is going to be behind closed doors,” he said.

“Canadians,” he said, “have every right to see the work that goes on in committee to the maximum amount possible, not just to hear the witnesses but to hear positions being taken by various members of that committee. That’s what’s going to be curtailed.”

Michael Behiels, a professor of political history at the University of Ottawa, said members of Commons committees have generally used their discretion to decide when to go in camera.

“You do your best to make sure that as much of the committee’s business as possible is open to the public for scrutiny, and so members, in a sense, can be as accountable as required under the law and under the proceedings of Parliament and under democracy,” Dr. Behiels said. “Simply to shut all that off legally, I think, is sending a terrible signal to Canadians that much of the government’s business is in fact closed to them.”

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