IN THE NEWS ~ House committees still not allowed to travel, NDP says too much PMO control

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Published | Publié: 2015-01-26

Received | Reçu: 2015-01-26 6:03 AM

Hill Times

Hill Times

 

Rachel Aiello, The Hill Times

Bringing a fisherman in to a Commons committee room in Ottawa to explain stock fluctuations off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador is like taking "a fish out of water," says the chair of the House Fisheries and Oceans Committee. It's just one of the 25 House committees that has not been allowed to travel outside of Ottawa for the last year because of the NDP's refusal to provide consent.

"As nice as Ottawa is, it's difficult to study some of these issues that are in our regions, and I think people want to see committees explore full depth of what they're studying," said Conservative MP Rodney Weston, (Saint John N.B.) chair of the House Fisheries and Oceans Committee, in an interview with The Hill Times. "It has impacted us negatively, no question."

Mr. Weston said that his committee has had to put a few of its studies on the shelf until its members can travel to the regions to experience what they've been hearing about and to complete their reports, including one on Northern Arctic fisheries. Instead, the committee decided in December to start another study on recreational fishing in Canada that won't require travel to complete.

Mr. Weston said for the House Fisheries Committee, nothing could replace actually relating to the witnesses in their environment.

"If you can go and visit them, whether it's at a processing plant or at a wharf, they're in their element and feel more comfortable and they can help you visualize the issue more clearly by being able to demonstrate or show you what they're talking about but when they come to Ottawa with the briefing package that they want to try to articulate their point, it doesn't lend itself as well," he said.

House committees haven't been permitted to travel since NDP began using this procedural tactic in February 2014, in retaliation to the government's refusal to take its consultation on Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act cross-country.

After NDP MP David Christopherson's (Hamilton Centre, Ont.) motion to withhold consent for House committees to travel wasn't supported, the NDP opted to block Chief Government Whip John Duncan's (Vancouver Island North, B.C.) motion to approve some committees to travel outside of Ottawa for upcoming studies.

Committees require unanimous consent to receive permission and funding to travel and every time it has been put before the House, the NDP have said, evolving their reasons for why they've continued to impede on committee travel since Bill C-23 was passed in June.

In an interview with The Hill Times, NDP House Leader Peter Julian (Burnaby- New Westminster, B.C.) said that he and his party are waiting for the government to signal that it respects the "hallmarks" of the committee process before reconsidering their move.

"We believe that committees should be hearing from witnesses, that we should be entertaining amendments through committees and that witnesses coming forward ... should not be censored from committee reports," he said, voicing concern that committees have become an arm of the Prime Minister's Office and the Conservative Party, that is being paid for by taxpayers.

"We think that are being very silly and in fact hypocritical in saying that committees shouldn't travel to hear from Canadians or interest groups or stakeholders on particular pieces of legislation," said Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, N.B.) in an interview with The Hill Times, who pointed to the NDP's defense of their satellite offices as being about outreach.

"What's more partisan? A multi-party committee travelling with House of Commons staff on particular pieces of legislation or study? It seems bizarre that you'd block the committees from travelling and, at the same time, try and justify an abuse of taxpayers money. It seems to me a contradiction," he said, adding that he hopes they'll change their mind.

However, Mr. Julian insisted travel isn't the real issue that is destroying the committee process and referred again to the PMO's control of the committee process.

For its pre-budget 2014 consultation hearings, the House Finance Committee was not granted permission from the House to travel. In June, the committee had hoped to hold pre-budget meetings in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Yellowknife, and Vancouver. All were held in Ottawa. Other committees, including the Human Resources committee; the Transport, Infrastructure and Communities committee; and the International Trade committee have also been grounded from planned travel to do with their work.

In addition to the benefit of hearing from Canadians where they live, Mr. Leblanc and Mr. Weston both spoke to the bonding agent committee travel can have between members.

"You get to know your colleagues in an absolutely relaxed and I think rather positive way that you wouldn't if you had just stayed in Ottawa where it is much more scripted... I don't know why the NDP would resist that," Mr. LeBlanc said.

"We all say that we think we should turn the volume down and this has been, in my experience, a proven way to do that because you get to know and you get to actually like your colleagues on all sides and then when you see them in the corridors or in the House, you have a connection that you wouldn't have had otherwise," said Mr. LeBlanc.

Quebec Liberal Senator Dennis Dawson said travel is helpful for committee studies. "When you get to regions, you have a chance to meet with people, so it is very useful," he said, pointing to his experience as chair of the Senate Transport and Communications committee.

The Senate Transport Committee is currently studying the challenges facing the CBC. Sen. Dawson cited the difference between talking to a francophone minority about what Radio Canada means to them, as opposed to hearing from the national organization representing francophone communities, for example, as a useful travel reason. Senate committees are still travelling for their studies.

Mr. Weston said that, although there is frustration within the committee, "everybody knows where the roadblock is."

He said he hasn't been party to any internal government conversations around whether this is something they'll be looking to try to reconcile this winter, but Mr. Duncan's office is aware of Mr. Weston's committee's request to travel and, on more than one occasion, the whip has tried to introduce the motion in the House, but has been unsuccessful in getting past the NDP.

Mr. Duncan's office did not return The Hill Times calls for comment on whether the issue of committee travel is something the government plans to try to resolve in this winter sitting. However, it is unlikely the government will bite on any sort of bargaining, as the NDP indicates it still wants to see a change in the way committees operate before opening the travel gate. At the time the tactic was first imposed, in response to media questions, a spokesperson for Mr. Duncan released a statement highlighting exactly what study work the NDP was rejecting and said the Conservative MPs would work to continue committee meetings in Ottawa by using the "available technology."

Parliamentary associations can still travel, but any upcoming House committee study will be refined to the Parliamentary Precinct. In addition to the Fisheries and Oceans Committee.

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