At the time this article was written Maurice
Dionne was the member of Parliament for Northumberland Miramichi.
0ne of the most intense debates of our time
is the accountability of government to the people through their elected
representatives. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the complexity of modern
issues, the rapid growth of bureaucracy and the continuing crusade of the mass media
to discredit elected representatives have made accountability more difficult to
achieve. Among the reforms essential to the orderly function of government and
its accountability to the people is a sound and functional system of standing
committees in the legislative branch of government. In this article I shall
offer some personal views on how committees can be reformed.
During eight years in Parliament, my
thinking has evolved from initial disgust and disillusion to the firm belief
that a reformed and strengthened committee system is the best guarantee for
backbench Members of Parliament to have some meaningful power and control over
policy decisions and legislative proposals. In my opinion the following reforms
must, in substance, be put into effect.
Composition and Function
Standing committees are much too large.
Ideally, a committee should consist of no more than twelve members. This size
is still manageable and yet large enough to ensure fair party representation. Substitution
of the membership of committees a farce presently should be severely limited.
This restriction, along with smaller committees, will ensure a more competitive
atmosphere for membership and inspire better and more punctual attendance.
One way around the substitution problem
would be to provide at the beginning of each session, when the committees are
struck, a list of alternate members. Substitutions for the Transport Committee,
for instance, would have to be made from among those listed as alternates for
the committee. That would solve the plague of substitutions we now have; more
than 3,000 during the first session of the 32nd Parliament.
With smaller committees there would also
have to be some provision for individuals who are not members (or alternates)
to come into the committee, to be recognized and to put questions or make
statements of particular interest to them or their constituency. There should,
however, be a limit to the kind of representation members can make in
committees. Thus, questioning a Minister as to why a particular piece of
equipment has not been installed in some airport washroom should be done by
letter or telephone and not at the expense of the time of the members of the
committee and the witnesses appearing before it.
If the size of committees is reduced, there
will be increased pressure on the "block" system of scheduling
meetings. Personally, I do not think there can be a reasonable committee
hearing, even with a committee of eleven, in an hour and a half time block. The
Transport Committee, because it has its own room, has worked largely outside
the block system. This has enabled us to get away from the five-minute rule for
speeches. Usually, the opposition critic has about 20-25 minutes to open the
questioning. Other members have reasonable time as well. The idea of members
having only five minutes is counter productive and serves only to give
witnesses an opportunity to "snow" the committee. I remember the
first time I asked a question in committee. I had ten minutes at that time. It
took about thirty seconds to ask my question and the witness took the rest of
the time to answer. I learned to put all my questions at once, but that too is
an abuse of the system.
Committee reports must be dealt with in one
way or another by Parliament. I do not like the present method of simply moving
concurrence. When that happens, nobody knows what the report is about. When
there is a motion for concurrence of a committee report, the chairman, or
whoever moves concurrence, should be allowed to explain briefly the report. The
government should respond to all reports within a reasonable time.
Annual reports of departments and crown
corporations should be referred to appropriate standing committees. For
example, a crown corporation dealing with transportation should have its annual
reports referred to the Transport Committee. That is where the expertise among
members is developing. The same applies to other subject matters.
Staff and Administration
I believe that staff for committees (and for
committee chairmen) has to be increased. Committee chairmen receive
considerable mail related to particular topics before the committee. They are
easy targets for lobby groups. Yet the only permanent staff a committee has is
the clerk. That is not enough. The Transport Committee, for example, should
also have someone assigned to it who is an expert in transportation or who can
acquire an expertise in the subject matter.
There should also be a small administrative
budget for committees. To be without any such budget makes the committee the
slave of the branch accountable for expenditures. Surely, the horse should be
before the cart! It is the committee who are elected, not the staff. How have
the mighty fallen!
I also believe that some, although not all,
committees require designated rooms on Parliament Hill. The Transport Committee
is, at last, in the process of acquiring new furnishings for our committee room
to make it look more functional, presentable and comfortable for the members
who do put in a lot of time there. I hope that room will become a model for
other committee rooms.
Sooner or later, television will come to
committees, and the size and configuration of the committee and its
accommodation will have to be addressed. Present accommodation is not only
unrealistic, but quite unworkable, with only a few exceptions.
It is absolutely essential, I believe, that
committees choose their own chairman. That may be heresy to members of the
cabinet, but I think that is the way it should be done. In my own case, I had
worked previously as marine transportation critic in opposition. I did a bit of
lobbying, but I was elected chairman of the Transport Committee pretty freely.
I did finally ask the minister if I was acceptable to him, but I did not ask
him for support or curry his favour. I wanted to have some freedom of action.
It may sound a bit self-serving, but I
believe committee chairmen should receive extra pay, probably in the order of a
parliamentary secretary. I am chairman now, but I have also been a
parliamentary secretary. I work much harder and, I think, have done more useful
work as a committee chairman that I ever did as a parliamentary secretary.
There is an unfairness in a system where parliamentary secretaries are paid but
committee chairmen who put in a great deal of time and concentrated effort in
preparing work for and sitting on committees, receive no compensation for it.
I also believe that part of a member's pay
package should be for service on committees. In other words, if you do not
serve on a committee, you do not make as much as those who do. Attendance
records would have to be kept and payment would be made only for services
rendered. Members might serve on no more than two committees at any given time.
Finally, I dislike proposals for a panel of
candidates from which chairmen would be drawn. Nor do I see why the
chairmanship of a committee should change every two years. If a chairman and a
committee are functioning well, why move him or her off to another committee?
Change for its own sake can become chaos!
The Initiation of Studies
There should be some limited power for
committees o initiate rather than simply to react. They must remain creatures
of Parliament. but the system is almost sterile now because the committees have
very little initiative of their own. For example, there was a lot of public and
political flak last year about a decision of the Minister of Transport
regarding VIA Rail. One can argue the merits of that until one is blue in the
face, but I will not go into that here. If the Chairman of the Standing
Committee on Transport could have called the committee together to get members'
views on whether or not we should have had some public hearings, I think it
would have been good for the government, even though the government would have
opposed it. Perhaps, too, the public would have had some feeling of being
heard, and some understanding of the decision.
If committees had power to initiate and if
chairmen could only be removed by the committee and not by the whip or a
minister, I think we could call the government to account without any danger,
so to speak, of an unwanted election. This would be meaningful and valuable
work. Nobody could claim anymore that the bureaucracy is in total control. If
we had a good committee system and good Members of Parliament doing what they
are elected to do, I suggest there would be no need for Ombudsmen or
Commissions on the Status of Women, Official Languages or even Human Rights. If
we were doing our job, there would be no need for a Comptroller General and
maybe not even for an Auditor General! We would require help to do it, but they
have expert help. Look at the Auditor General's staff. A committee of Members
of Parliament could do ten times what an Auditor General does with a fraction
of the staff and I think, with less grandstanding than a couple of recent
occupants of that exalted position!
Task Forces and Select Committees
Recently, governments have begun to use task
forces and select committees with greater frequency. Such groups are ideal for
urgent and particular problems. They can act quickly to get public input and
propose solutions. They must, however, have a limited mandate and a limited
time. They must not become an alternative to the standing committees, for then
they may well become the means for a government to avoid facing issues.
Certainly, they cannot adequately deal with estimates and annual reports. Thus
there should be no attempt to limit the legitimate work of standing committees
by the multiplication of task forces, which should be the lightening rod when
major storms appear on the horizon.
Committee reform, although important, is not
enough. Both Houses of Parliament must also be renewed to meet the needs of the
present. This must be done without mocking the past, but at the same time
without becoming so enamoured of the past that the institutional requirements
of the present and the future will f ail to be addressed. Unless we act now,
respect for Parliament will continue to decline until it has no meaning and no
purpose. Then what?