At the time this article was written John MacDougall
was Member of Parliament for Timiskaming.
0n October 12, 1983 I celebrated the first
anniversary of my election as Member of Parliament. This first year has been an
eye opener f or me. As a newly elected MP I came to Ottawa full of ideas,
enthusiasm, energy and a sincere desire to help my constituents. In a very
short time, however, I learned that there were very serious limits to my
ability to effect change in Ottawa.
My first lesson was that change sometimes
comes slowly. There are rules and procedures to be followed. Orders and
traditions to be learned. I also found myself adrift in a sea of paperwork,
decorum and political strategy I had never dreamed existed. I had to ask myself
"how does this relate to my constituents in north-eastern Ontario"
and "what is my role in the grand scheme of things".
Slowly, as the months passed and with the
help of my colleagues on both sides of the House I began to see more clearly
that an MP really can play a part and I began to share their enthusiasm for
Parliament and its focus on the national rather than the strictly regional
perspective. I realized that unemployment and the problems of business failure
in my own riding would not go away until policies were developed which would
adequately address these problems on a nation-wide basis.
That seemed to be the key – good
policymaking. Good policies equal good government and good government for
Canada should provide the environment for economic growth, full employment,
regional equity, self-sufficiency and social wellbeing for all Canadians.
When I arrived in Ottawa I found my fellow
parliamentarians preoccupied with the question of how Parliament could operate
more effectively and how best to achieve good government. For my own part I
began to see the answer to those questions as I took my place on the Standing
Committee on Public Works and National Resources. It was a place where elected
representatives came into contact with the building blocks of national
policies. We met with informed and interested Canadians and talked about the
issues of concern to average citizens. At the same time, those citizens had an
opportunity to work alongside their Members of Parliament to arrive at
recommendations for the government of the day.
On the down side, I saw many of my colleagues
come and go from the standing committee roster, some arriving ill-prepared and
disinterested in the questioning of well-intentioned and expert witnesses. I
heard rumours of costly investigations, general disillusionment, valuable
committee reports ignored by government and a lack of orientation and
continuity. Nevertheless I learned that the current role and state of the
committee system had been hard won and was still improving and evolving.
In fact, in recent years the role of the
parliamentary committee has been vastly expanded due to pressure from
parliamentarians frustrated with their inability to influence government policy
makers. These parliamentarians were attempting to wrest policy making authority
away from the public service which had for so long ruled the roost without
feeling the political heat individual MPs are so familiar with. As well,
certain policy areas seemed to have been traditionally ignored by consecutive
governments. They now demanded attention and reform.
In 1979 Mr. Clark's Conservative government
got the ball roiling with the presentation of a Position Paper on the Reform of
Parliament which contained fifteen recommendations regarding parliamentary
committees. The paper emphasized that expanding the role of parliamentary committees
should not be viewed as a threat to the executive power of the cabinet but
rather as a step toward improving the accountability and responsibility of
Among its many recommendations, the paper
proposed that committees be afforded more staff, a smaller and more stable
membership, and that annual reports of all departments, agencies, and crown
corporations should be referred automatically to the relevant committee. The
Liberal government elected in 1980 took some of these recommendations to heart.
Shortly after the election, Prime Minister Trudeau announced the creation of
parliamentary task forces on Regulatory Reform, Alternative Energy and Oil
Substitution, North-South Relations, Employment Opportunities in the 80s, the
Disabled and the Handicapped, and on a National Trading Corporation. Since then
other parliamentary task forces have been created, notably the task force on
Federal Provincial Fiscal Relations.
A number of characteristics clearly
distinguished task forces from standing and even other special committees. They
had only seven members and no substitution except in exceptional circumstances.
They are authorized to study and investigate a given subject and their mandates
included the authority to summon appropriate witnesses and/or travel to gather
their information. They could hire staff and make reports at any time, even
when the House is not sitting. The reports of the task forces often featured
attractive design and artwork, more photographs and a bold style of writing
designed to appeal to the average reader and stimulate public interest and
Many of my colleagues reported glowingly on
the task force as an important opportunity to participate in the very creation
of policy where none previously existed. The formula marked a departure from
the conventional committee work which is mainly to examine and propose
amendments to predetermined government policy. Unshackled by the overt
partisanship and irregular attendance and interest which frequently plagues
standing committees, my colleagues found the task force environment conducive
to a tree exchange of ideas and the slow but steady development of policy
recommendations. The subsequent recommendations carry with them the weight of
the consensus reached by a group of men and women normally pitted
philosophically against one another in the House of Commons.
Before advocating the use of task forces as
a sure-fire solution to all our national woes one must remember that beyond the
most basic and positive response to some recommendations of certain task
forces, the entire effort was set back somewhat by the government's reaction to
some reports. For example the 1981 budget removed the Revenue Guarantee in the
EPF (Established Program Financing) effective at the end of the 1982 fiscal
year. This move dampened enthusiasm somewhat since the Federal-Provincial
Fiscal Arrangements task force had reached an all party, unanimous report
recommending no further cutbacks of government health expenditures.
On the positive side, the existing standing
committees of the House have taken their lead from the task forces. In more and
more cases, standing committees are striking subcommittees with the mandate to
inquire into specific problem areas pertinent to that committee. For example,
the standing committee on External Affairs and National Defence created a
subcommittee to study Canada's relations with Latin America and the Caribbean.
In August 1982 the standing committee on Indian Affairs and Northern
Development created a subcommittee to study the issue of Women and the Indian
These and other special inquiries provide
members with the opportunity to educate themselves by exposing them to the wide
spectrum of public opinion on a specific issue. As they gain expertise they can
become more effective both in their House duties and constituencies.
Committees have also become more innovative
in their methods of bringing their findings and work to the attention of the
government and the public. As an example, two years ago, while the standing
committee on Indian and Northern Affairs was considering the main estimates of
the department they stumbled upon the tragic problems of a group of James Bay
Cree in northern Quebec. All members of the committee were convinced that the
matter should be brought to the attention of the minister and the public, yet
their mandate was the main estimates and there is no provision for substantive
reports when reporting the estimates. The members from all parties decided to
produce a report for the minister and to hold a press conference. Their action
resulted in the minister's travelling to the area and providing at least a
partial resolution to the problem.
Herein lies the greatest hurdle for
committee and parliamentary reform. Despite all of the money poured into
special, joint, standing and task force committees the formal mechanisms are
still not in place to require the government to formally and directly respond
to the work of a committee. As a result, members have not always seen a direct
correlation between their recommendations and government response.
Recommendations proposed by the Special
Committee on Procedure and the Standing Orders (and accepted on a trial basis
by the House in November 1982) require the government to at least table, in a
given period of time, a report of a committee if requested to do so by the
committee. Other reforms adopted provided for a considerably heavier workload,
along with a reduced membership, for standing committees. The procedure
committee expressed some concern that these changes could create bottlenecks
and delay the government's legislative programme. After all someone still has
to review the departmental estimates and conduct clause-by-clause study of
proposed legislation. The day-to-day grind, although less glamourous than "policymaking"
is still central to the legislative process. In March 1983 the procedure
committee recommended that separate legislative subcommittees be created for
the detailed consideration of individual bills. This proposal has yet to be
adopted by the House.
The future will, no doubt, see many changes
and proposals to improve the efficiency and relevance of Parliament. Perhaps we
will see a greater use of joint Senate and House committees, so effectively
used during the constitutional debate. There may be more task forces and
perhaps the standing committees of the House will be given authority to
determine their own mandates. All these things are possible and probably
Some worry that the expanding role of the
standing, special and task force committees will threaten the importance and
relevance of the House itself. I cannot help but think that the thoughtful
deliberations of a small group of well-informed persons can only improve our
national understanding and ability to deal with issues and problems. Final
debate in the House of Commons should be all the more relevant for the wealth
of experience and perspective gained by its members.
Already the use of the special inquiry forms
of committees has contributed to the body of information available to the House
on many given topics. MPs who have been involved in these studies remain
vigilant in the House and force the government again and again to address
specific problem and policy areas.
I see the evolution of the role of the
parliamentary committee as a good thing for all Canadians. So far this
evolution has been slow and that is not in itself a bad thing. As a
conservative I have great respect for the past and its traditions, however, the
national issues which concern Canadians today are not those encountered by
earlier generations and governments. We all know and experience a sense of
inadequacy when faced with complexity and rapid change in our society.
As parliamentarians I believe we all have a
responsibility to encourage reforms that will help us carry out our duties as
community, regional and national leaders of opinion. That is why it is
important that we all take a closer look at how much we are contributing as
individuals to the evolution of the political process and how well we are
served by our institutions.