After Ottawa in 1999 and Ontario in 2003, it was Québecs turn to host
the Conference of Canadian Parliamentary Committee Clerks, from September
12 to 15, 2007. The conference provides an occasion to bring together
Canadian committee clerks who rarely have the opportunity to meet and exchange
views on their respective professional practices. This article looks at
the topics discussed during the Conference.
The Conference began with a joint presentation by the committee clerks
of the House of Commons (Pierre Rodrigue and Christine Lafrance) and of
the Senate (Heather Lank and Shaila Anwar), who discussed the issues they
have faced since the election of a minority government in Ottawa. The importance
given to parliamentary procedure has increased, as it serves as the foundation
for the development of new jurisprudence.
Within the context of a minority government, clerks are increasingly called
upon as new procedural questions arise and increase in number. Exchanges
between clerks in this regard are more frequent. The experience is thus
most rewarding, both fostering closer relations among clerks and renewed
enthusiasm regarding work.
François Arsenault completed this presentation by describing the situation
prevailing at the National Assembly of Québec, which has experienced, since
March 26, 2007, the first minority government in its modern history. Three
parliamentary groups now share the Assembly seats. The Standing Orders,
of which certain provisions had obviously become inapplicable owing to
their having been essentially established for two parliamentary groups
and a majority government, were replaced by temporary rules for the current
For example, the composition of the standing committees henceforth reflects
the size of the parliamentary groups (even if one member of the Second
Opposition Group does not have the right to vote), while previously the
parliamentary group forming the Government prevailed. For another example,
the distribution of vice-chairmanships has been specified, as the Standing
Orders are rather vague in this regard. In spite of everything, certain
problems, such as the distribution of speaking time within the framework
of certain mandates, have not been resolved by the temporary rules, the
committees thereupon basing their decisions on the rulings rendered in
the House by the President of the Assembly.
Nancy Ford, also from the National Assembly of Québec, gave an overview
of the history of the Committee on Public Administration, which is celebrating
this year its tenth anniversary and whose unique mandate distinguishes
it from the other committees. Its principle duties are to: 1) examine
the financial commitments that exceed $25,000 for each ministry and public
agency whose estimates are voted upon at the National Assembly; 2) hear,
each year, the Auditor General on his annual management report; 3) hear,
at least once a year, the ministers, deputy ministers, and chief executive
officers of every public agency in order to discuss their administrative
management. This huge task requires the Committee members to focus their
work on the examination of administrative management and not on the pertinence
of political choices and to reach a consensus on a mutual goal, namely
the strengthening of the public administration.
Despite the newness of the Committee, its results are impressive, owing
to both the atmosphere of cooperation that reigns within and to the improved
visibility it affords to the report of the Auditor General and to the cordial
relations established with the ministries and agencies, who often take
the opportunity when participating in Committee hearings to emphasize improvements
in their services to the population. For the Committee on Public Administration
the next few years will be rife with challenges since it will be called
upon to further develop the follow-up of its mandates, in accordance with
those carried out by the Auditor General, and to refine its role as a guide
to the sector-based parliamentary committees.
Mrs. Ford made a second presentation focussing on the required criteria
for efficient accountability, which led to several constructive exchanges.
Other than the aforementioned elements, strong leadership, adequate preparation,
the drafting of recommendations as well as their follow-up and the participation
of the public and the media are all essential criteria to achieve efficiency.
A round table discussion was chaired by Katch Koch, of the Legislative
Assembly of Ontario, on special cases that have occurred in recent years
within committees. The issue of accessibility to papers tabled in committee
during in camera meetings was raised. In the concerned assemblies, the
matter was resolved by the committees adopting various motions naming the
persons having access thereto, providing for the destruction of the documents
at the end of the session or establishing an embargo over a period of several
The use of videoconferencing during public consultations was also discussed.
Certain jurisdictions defray the costs associated thereto. Its use is sometimes
the method of choice, whenever possible, owing to the savings it affords
and the elimination of problems related to witnesses travelling. However,
other jurisdictions contest the advisability of this technology that may
be intimidating for certain witnesses, though it is generally agreed upon
that videoconferencing is suitable for expert witnesses.
The final point discussed concerned the fact that a decision rendered by
a chairman may be contested and thus overturned in most assemblies, particularly
regarding the receivability of amendments, whereas in Québec, for example,
the Chairs ruling is final and without the possibility of appeal.
Viktor Kaczkowski, of Saskatchewan, led a round table discussion on technological
developments within the parliamentary committees. Laptop computers, BlackBerries,
Power Point presentations and on-line consultations are examples of recent
innovations in committees. However, only Alberta and Québec have developed
an Intranet set aside for committee members that remains accessible even
when travelling and where all pertinent documents may be accessed.
In this regard, Louis Breault, of the National Assembly of Québec, explained
to participants the operation of this Intranet, known as the Greffier
(Clerk) site, which was introduced in May 2006. The site is divided into
two sections, one being accessible to all Members and the other reserved
for the exclusive use of committee members. A wide variety of information
is available on this site, including the texts of bills considered in committee,
documents relating to public consultations (schedules, briefs presented
by witnesses, documents prepared by researchers, citizens answers to on-line
questionnaires) or to deliberative meetings.
At the invitation of Tonia Grannum, of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario,
moderator of the workshop on travelling committees, Mr. Breault continued
with a second presentation on the recent proceedings of two Québec committees.
In 2004, the Committee on Culture adopted a mandate on the protection of
the religious heritage and travelled throughout the province to consult
the population on this matter. Subsequently, it completed its proceedings
by carrying out a mission to France. The Select Committee on the Election
Act, established in 2005 to examine a draft bill, travelled throughout
Québec over a 7-week period. An information booklet had been distributed
beforehand to every Québec household. What made this committee unique is
that it brought together both parliamentarians and citizens. Indeed, a
citizens committee composed of eight constituents of Québec, selected
randomly by an independent firm among the candidacies received, assisted
the parliamentarians during the proceedings.
Mrs. Grannum then chaired a final round table discussion on this subject.
Certain jurisdictions emphasized various difficulties inherent to committee
travel, such as the unequal distribution of the population over the territory,
the absence of the required infrastructure for the holding of public hearings
in certain cities or quite simply the constraints caused by the Assembly
being in session. However, the clerks unanimously agreed on the benefits
reaped by such an opportunity which allows for closer relations among committee
members and the resolution of certain conflicts that appear insurmountable.
Conferences, such as this one, are yet another opportunity to encourage
closer collaboration. They offer more than just workshops whose information
is otherwise available. Their true objective is to provide occasions to
meet and establish fruitful collaborations from which innovative ideas
may arise. As essential links in the exercise of democracy, parliamentary
clerks will be called upon in the future to meet new requirements in a
world that is constantly changing. Assistance between colleagues will hence