IN THE NEWS ~ Cabinet interference undermining House committees, say NDP and Rathgeber

Rachel Aiello, The Hill Times

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Cabinet has far too much influence over House committees, through Parliamentary secretaries and ministers' offices, says former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber who quit the party because of Cabinet interference, and the NDP says that influence is undermining the entire House committee process.

Through pre-committee meetings that ministerial staffers attend and other methods of central control, committees have become "a big show" where "not much is left to chance," the now Independent MP told The Hill Times in an interview last week in his Hill office.

"Committees do nothing but busy work. They go through the motions of hearing witnesses, and go through the motions of debating legislation, but the outcome of this is all determined in advance and is determined from somewhere else," Mr. Rathgeber (Edmonton-St. Albert, Alta.) said.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster, B.C.) expressed his party's discontent with the state of the committee process in an interview with The Hill Times two weeks ago. He said the Conservatives haven't been respecting the "hallmarks" of the committee process.

"We believe that committees are extremely important and so we believe that committees should be hearing from witnesses, that we should be entertaining amendments through committees and that we also believe that committee testimony-witnesses coming forward and speaking to a committee-that their testimony should not be censored from committee reports," he said, referring to committee reports leaving out witness testimony.

Mr. Julian said committees have become an arm of the Prime Minister's Office and the Conservative Party that is being paid for by taxpayers.

The PMO did not respond to a request for comment on how committees are controlled.

Mr. Rathgeber, who wrote about the committee process in his book Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada, said the NDP's concerns are valid. He hasn't been on a committee since he left the Conservative caucus in 2013 after his private member's bill on public sector salary disclosure was gutted.

But from his experience on the Justice, Public Safety, and Aboriginal Affairs committees, he told The Hill Times that Conservative caucus committee members meet in advance of every committee meeting. They're known as "pre-committee meetings" and they're usually right before the scheduled meeting and are attended by the chair, the Parliamentary secretary and staffers-from the minister's office and sometimes from the PMO.

The Parliamentary secretary's executive assistant acts as a conduit to the minister's office, which is where instructions often come from in the pre-committee meetings, Mr. Rathgeber said. The group, led by the Parliamentary secretary, is walked through the committee agenda and told what they will be supporting or voting for and what they won't be allowing.

When it comes to the actual committee meeting, the Parliamentary secretary's office or the minister's director of Parliamentary affairs acts as the liaison to the minister, and the Chief Government Whip's Office provides the "canned" questions on what the committee members should ask witnesses. Mr. Rathgeber said it's preferred that MPs ask "puffball" questions to witnesses that support the legislation.

The minister's director of Parliamentary affairs typically gives the directions to the Parliamentary secretary. Those "marching orders" are from the minister's office, which gets its from the PMO, Mr. Rathgeber said.

"The outcome is determined by some combination of the PMO and the ministers and the House leader's office. The executive determines the outcome of committee deliberations and that is highly, highly inappropriate in a Parliamentary democracy. It's a sham, " said Mr. Rathgeber. "They're told how to vote based on PMO staffers and deliberations in ministers' offices."

According to House of Commons procedural expert and former senior committee clerk Thomas Hall, the Chief Government Whip's Office often sends staff to committee meetings, as do the opposition whips, and the relevant government departments will sometimes follow the proceedings, "especially if the committee is dealing with something important politically."

Mr. Rathgeber said PMO staffers are sometimes dispatched to committees when "there's a problem to troubleshoot," though he said this only happens rarely.

Parliamentary secretaries haven't always been allowed to sit on committees and their prominence now is cause for some concern about the separation between the Cabinet and legislative branch of government.

According to Mr. Hall, in 1985 under prime minister Brian Mulroney, Parliamentary secretaries were prohibited from belonging to standing committees whose mandate was within their area of responsibility. This move followed recommendations made by the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons. However, in 1991, the prohibition was lifted because the Parliamentary secretaries' absence was said to be depriving the government of an official representative on committees. In 2004, under Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin's government, Parliamentary secretaries were sworn in as members of the Privy Council.

"Parliamentary committees are part of the legislative branch and it's the legislature that is vetting government legislation," said Mr. Rathgeber.

But he also pointed out that Parliamentary secretaries are often the ones to stand up on behalf of the minister in the House or to go on the nightly political TV shows to defend the government's message.

"It is problematic to have de facto members of the executive as part of that process. I think even structurally it's a problem but in practice it's a disaster because they're not just one of the 12 - they're directing the committee, they're like the whip," he said.

A document clarifying the role of Parliamentary Secretaries written by the Political and Social Affairs Division of the Library of Parliament in April 2006 reads: "Parliamentary secretaries are usually named to standing committees having mandates in their area of responsibility. There, they represent the minister's views and address political issues that may arise. They share departmental information and may work with committee chairs to plan appearances of ministers and departmental officials."

The bit on representing the minister's views and addressing political issues is worrisome to both former Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page and Mr. Rathgeber. Mr. Page said Parliament isn't using the committee system the way it was set up to be used: as management boards that can provide insight to departments about pertinent and current issues.

Instead, Mr. Rathgeber said the topics of study between bills are hand-picked by the executive.

From his experience, Mr. Rathgeber said if there is no legislation coming down the chute for a committee to study, the members are asked to come up with potential study topics; those are then given to the Parliamentary secretary who comes back with a short-list and the topic is chosen from there.

He said this extends into the way the recommendations are selected at the end of the report process. Once the draft report is written by the Library of Parliament and the clerks assigned to the committee, the Conservatives go through them clause-by-clause in their pre-committee meeting and are instructed on which recommendations to support.

The vote on the final recommendations, which is dealt with through motions in the committee, is whipped, Mr. Rathgeber said, and the unsupported recommendations are never seen by the public, which is why draft reports are often discussed in-camera.

Mr. Page said that after the Conservatives won a majority in 2011, his often weekly invitations to speak at committees began to dwindle until he was rarely asked.

Mr. Rathgeber said what happened to his and other backbench MPs' private member's bills are textbook examples of committee micromanagement.

His bill, C-461, the CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act, was supported by the Conservative caucus but, for what he understands to be political reasons, the PMO raised the threshold for disclosing salaries from $160,200 a year to $444,000. Members on the committee were instructed to pass an amendment increasing the threshold, a move Mr. Rathgeber said wasn't supported in any witness testimony.

He learned his bill's fate from the Justice minister's director of Parliamentary affairs, he said, who told him the decision was from the PMO.

"Are committees doing their work? I think under this Conservative government it's a real difficulty. Taxpayers' resources are being misused," Mr. Julian said.

The control has taken away the jobs of the opposition MPs on these committees, said Mr. Page.

"Shutting down the committee system and how it's being controlled, whether it's through PMO or other techniques... I think the end result is bad," he said.

"We need to let these institutions breathe and serve Canadians. They need to meet they should have the appropriate information in front of them," said Mr. Page.

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The Hill Times



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