Let's Form a Committee on the Committee Problem

05/11/2012 04:49 EDT | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Parliamentary committees are a key organ of Canadian representative democracy, and arguably the best forum in the entire legislative process for in-depth analysis and scrutiny of proposed laws. Generally, a bill will come before a committee of MPs after it has passed second reading in the House of Commons, but before the final vote. Committees are able to call and question witnesses, identify problems and propose amendments. The MPs selected to sit on a given parliamentary committee may or may not be experts in the field at the time of their appointment; but if all goes as it should, they will be by the time they finish their term.

All of this to say that it's rather disconcerting to read that members of all three main federal parties agree that the current committee system is seriously flawed.

One long-time Liberal MP, Mauril Belanger, quit a committee on which he had served for nearly two decades, saying it was no longer possible to accomplish anything in what had become a hyper-partisan environment.

NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen agreed, suggesting that committee meetings are often little more than scripted run-throughs, with outcomes on everything from witness lists to amendments determined in advance by government ministers, while backbench committee members meekly toe the line. Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair went a step further, asserting that the committee "institution itself is breaking down" as a result of the increased number of sessions held off camera, beyond the gaze of the public and the press.

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Michael Chong rejected any notion of partisan shenanigans, saying that other parties had behaved in similar ways when they were in power. The denial was unsurprising but unsatisfying; regardless of whether one believes that super-centralization, censorship, and secrecy are at record levels or just politics-as-usual, nobody (least of all a government priding itself on accountability and transparency) should think them desirable, or acceptable in a 21st-century liberal democracy.

Nevertheless, and to his credit, Chong did acknowledge that the committee system was not working as well as it had been and should be. And then he went on to make an interesting point.

He suggested that the sheer, and rising number of committees is overwhelming the limited time and abilities of backbench MPs, forcing them to take on various committee roles simultaneously, and making it nearly impossible for them to attain the kind of familiarity within their area(s) that the system is designed to foster. He compared the Canadian predicament with the situation in other Westminster-style countries, where a higher MP-to-committee ratio has correlated with stronger, more effective committee work.

Chong is becoming something of a parliamentary reform guru, having previously made headlines by proposing substantive and thoughtful changes to the much-maligned Question Period. His latest idea deserves consideration.

Of course, reducing the number of committees would mean lumping together certain issue areas -- for instance, foreign affairs and international trade, or public accounts and government operations -- likely reducing the time spent on each. As eminent political scientist Ned Franks noted, an alternative to reducing the number of committees would be to reduce the number of members of each committee. But that would simply produce fewer experts on each topic. Neither version of the idea is perfect.

What is clear though, is that the committee system must be addressed properly before the issues will be. Committee reform won't bring decorum to Parliament on its own. But perhaps, by giving MPs the ability to become the experts the system wants and needs them to be, backbenchers may become a bit less likely to toe the line, and a bit more likely to try to change it for the better.