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Reform of the Committee System in Quebec
Lucie Giguère

At the time this article was written Lucie Giguère was a lawyer in the Department of research and parliamentary procedure at the Quebec National Assembly. This is a revised version of a presentation to the Presiding Officers’ Conference in Victoria in January 1998.

The process of parliamentary reform currently under way in the Quebec National Assembly began in October 1996 when the Speaker, Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, tabled a document setting out the main objectives of the reform, together with a first set of proposals. The process to reform the committee system has now commenced. Provisional changes – in force until March 11, 1998 – were adopted in 1997, concerning committee schedules and organisation. Further proposals were tabled on December 17, 1997, concerning the appearance of witnesses. This article outlines the organisation and operation of the parliamentary committees as they existed before 1984. It also looks at the current provisions of the standing orders, and the report on committees tabled by a National Assembly task force.

Under the 1972 standing orders, in force until March 1984, the National Assembly had 27 standing committees, the names of which corresponded in general to the various government departments. Almost all the committees were sectoral, with a range of functions. Their chief characteristic was that they could act only on a mandate referred to them by the Assembly. Another notable feature was the lack of permanent leadership. This was because each meeting was chaired by a different MNA, designated by the Speaker from a “pool” of chairs approved by the Committee on the National Assembly; in addition, the role of the chair was reduced to ensuring that debate was properly conducted.

Two main points must be borne in mind; first, that the committees were subject to the direction of the majority party; and second, that they were not empowered to act independently or on their own initiative. Only the Committee on Financial Commitments enjoyed a measure of independence under the Standing Orders, since it could adopt its own operating rules, in particular concerning its agenda, the dates of its meetings, the convening of meetings and the procedure for examining financial commitments.

Select Committee Experience, 1981-82

It is important to consider the experience of the three “ad hoc” committees set up in 1981-82 on motions adopted by the National Assembly. These three committees, known as the Special Committee on the Civil Service, the Special Committee on Youth Protection and the Study Committee on Parliamentary Control of Delegated Legislation, became models for the 1984 reform.

The experiment was based on the “select committees” of British parliamentary tradition. However, the committees differed from their British counterparts in that they were not established on a permanent basis, and had no powers to act on their own initiative. For these reasons, they are perhaps more closely related to the six special committees set up by the Parliament of Canada in 1980-81.1 The distinguishing characteristics of the special committees were freedom from government control, non-partisan operation and independence.

For the first time, Quebec committees were able to act free from government control, since their membership was constituted entirely of MNAs. In addition, they were not subject to control by party leaders or caucuses.

As a measure of their independence, each committee had its own chair and a designated secretary; one committee even elected an opposition member to act as vice-chair. The role of the chairs was no longer traditional, since they could participate actively in debate, in addition to organising and directing the work of the committees.

The three committees also established a secretariat and a team of researchers and expert advisers to assist all committee members; they were allocated a limited budget. Lastly, they could summon witnesses, and one committee was the first ever to conduct sittings outside the parliament building. Most of these characteristics were retained in the 1984 reform.

The 1984 Reform: New Ground Rules

The 1984 reform was designed to enhance the role played by the National Assembly and by MNAs, by providing MNAs with the tools they needed to perform their duties more effectively. Its fundamental objectives were to establish a better balance between executive power and legislative power, modernise the operations of the assembly and its committees, and provide for firmer control of the executive and the public administration and better supervision of public finances and spending.

In order to meet these objectives, the parliamentary committee system was completely overhauled as the main result of the reform. The committees underwent structural changes. First, the number of committees was reduced from 27 to nine. Secondly, the Committee on Financial Commitments was abolished and all the committees, except the Committee on the National Assembly, became sectoral committees with a range of functions.

The committees were no longer divided along the same lines as the government departments; rather, each was assigned a policy field corresponding to the main missions of the State. Each committee became responsible for performing all the mandates, including the examination of financial commitments, that fell within its policy field.

The main innovations introduced by the reform involved empowering the committees to act on their own initiative, and increasing their degree of independence; in fact, these aspects constituted the essence of the reform.

The committees thus became independent entities, consisting of a chair and vice-chair elected for a two-year term, and of the MNAs appointed to each committee by the Committee on the National Assembly, also for two years. Each committee was assigned a secretary.

Under the new system, the first independent action taken by each committee was the election of its chair and vice-chair from among its members. They had to belong to different parliamentary groups, and were elected by a majority of the members of each parliamentary group (the “double majority” system). Five committees were chaired by a Government MNA, and three by an opposition MNA.

Another factor intended to increase committee independence was the fact that Ministers were no longer ex officio members. There were now only two cases in which a Minister was a member of a committee: for the examination of a bill introduced by the Minister or, where so provided, by the order of referral adopted by the Assembly.

The role of the committee chairs also changed. In addition to enjoying committee membership and the same rights as the other members, they also led the committee by directing and organising its work. They were empowered to convene a committee meeting, and to request the establishment of a steering committee.

Regarding the organisation of their proceedings, the committees gained more independence. They could hold public consultations and public hearings, either on their own initiative or at the request of the Assembly. In both cases, they had full control over the organisation of their proceedings.

The reform also provided the committees with new tools, in order to guarantee the independence of their operations. They were allocated a budget, could engage the services of experts and research staff, and could hold sittings outside the Parliament Building.

The committees gained other new powers, such as the power to make recommendations in connection with all their mandates, save exceptions, the power to hold sittings behind closed doors, and the power to form sub-committees.

The Committee on the National Assembly was assigned responsibility for the overall co-ordination of committee work. It was also made responsible for examining matters relating to parliamentary reform, via a standing sub-committee, and for hearing the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer and the Public Protector annually. Because of its special status, its membership comprised the main parliamentary figures: the Speaker of the Assembly, who chaired the committee, the leaders and whips of the various parliamentary groups, and the chairs of the eight standing committees.

The other central element of the reform consisted in granting the committees the power to examine, on their own initiative, draft regulations and regulations, the plans, activities and management of the public bodies and agencies over which they held supervisory powers, the financial commitments made within their policy field, and any other matter of public interest.

Ten years after the reform the committees had failed to exercise these powers consistently, except the powers relating to the examination of financial commitments.

Report on the Reform of the Committee System

On February 27, 1995, the director of the committee secretariat filed a report on the impact of the 1984 parliamentary reform on committee activities with the Secretary General of the National Assembly. The report, entitled Parliamentary Reform, Ten Years On was released by the then Speaker, Roger Bertrand.

The report summed up the reflections of a group of experts who had consulted a large number of MNAs, several members of the press gallery and many organisations and individuals having taken part in public hearings organised by parliamentary committees.

According to the authors of the report, the reform had had several positive effects, since it had allowed each committee to acquire an individual existence and personality. It had also led to several instances of work undertaken on a committee’s own initiative, a situation that would have been impossible under the former committee system.

However, the authors concluded that “the reform has been a failure, since its objectives have not been met”.2 This severe verdict was based on their observation that the committees had made only sparing use of the powers available to them, and had not acquired the minimum degree of independence that would have indicated the success of the reform.

According to the report, only 5% of the total workload of the eight sectoral committees was attributable to activities stemming from the cornerstone of the reform, committee independence, which included the power to undertake mandates on their own initiative to examine any matter of public concern, the power to examine regulations and draft regulations, and the power to supervise public bodies and agencies. In addition, the committees had failed to achieve the hoped-for degree of independence, since the controlling influence of the political parties and the executive could still be clearly discerned in many supposedly independent activities, such as the election of the committee chairs and vice-chairs and the organization of public hearings.

The authors of the report blamed the failure of the reform on the lack of any real power available to MNAs to counterbalance the controlling influence of the political parties and the executive. Their conclusions read as follows:

In short, the 1984 reform has failed to enhance the value of the tasks performed by Members, and to rekindle the Members’ initial interest in their duties. Any proposal concerning changes to the current system must, imperatively, take these two aspects into account.3

As a solution, the report suggested that the attendance of Ministers at committee sittings should be restrained, to put an end to the established practice of systematically appointing a Minister to any committee holding public hearings at the request of the Assembly, since public hearings are one of the means at disposal of MNAs to regain their rightful place in the parliamentary system. Ministers should be kept out of public hearings, unless called as witnesses.

Another change suggested in the report involved increasing the responsibility of the committee chairs by allowing them to order the performance of certain recurrent mandates, such as the examination of financial commitments, a task to which each committee had to devote one sitting per quarter, since the difficulty of obtaining consent from all the parties concerned was the cause of frequent delays. Following the proposed change, the committee chair would be responsible for the examination to the Assembly, and would report to it on the activities of the committee.

In addition, to ensure that the election of committee chairs and vice-chairs reflected the actual desires of the members, rather than a negotiated settlement between the parties, the report suggested that the chair and vice-chair be elected by secret ballot with a three-quarters majority vote of the members.

Lastly, the authors of the report proposed a review of the policy field of certain committees to re-establish a balanced workload, and to reduce membership in the committees to a maximum of twelve MNAs to increase efficiency. In 1993-94, committee membership varied between 15 and 21 members.

These are some of the observations and suggestions contained in the report presented by the Committees Secretariat. The recommendations concerning committee membership and policy fields have been dealt with by the amendments made to the Standing Orders.

Besides the report, other comments made during activities connected with parliamentary reformhave guided the actions of those responsible for the current reform. These activities included a conference organised on February 26, 1997 by Le Courrier parlementaire on the theme “Parliamentary Reform: How it Affects Us” and a forum held by the Quebec Bar Association on April 19, 1997 on parliamentary reform.

Recent Amendments Concerning Mandates

On April 10, 1997, the National Assembly adopted a series of changes concerning  the proceedings of the Assembly and its committees, the first changes introduced as part of the current reform. The changes involved amending the Standing Orders to change the hours of committee and House sittings; as a result, no evening sittings will be held during regular sessions, since sittings held outside normal working hours are increasingly unpopular among MNAs and generate a substantial amount of additional expense.

One month later, on March 11, 1997, a further series of amendments affecting the parliamentary committees was adopted. This involved, essentially, the establishment of the Committee on Public Administration, chaired by an opposition MNA.

The Committee will perform duties formerly exercised by the Committee on the National Assembly or the other standing committees. It will examine financial commitments, and will also hear the Auditor General annually in connection with the latter’s annual report, and Deputy Ministers and the heads of public agencies in connection with their administration and management,4 besides examining any matter referred by the Assembly.

The establishment of this new committee can be seen as a revival of the former Committee on Financial Commitments, although in fact it functions more as a public accounts committee.

The other major change introduced by the reform concerns the creation of two new committees to replace the Committee on Planning and Infrastructures and redistribute the workload of the parliamentary committees. Each sectoral committee will now generally consist of 10 MNAs, or, exceptionally, a maximum of 12.

Proposed Changes Concerning Witnesses

In December, 1997, another important stage in the committee reform process was completed when the Speaker tabled a series of proposed changes to the Act respecting the National Assembly and the Standing Orders in connection with the appearances of witnesses before parliamentary committees. The proposals are intended to clarify the rights and obligations of individuals who testify before a parliamentary committee after receiving an invitation or a summons. They are also designed to ensure that the citizens who take part in committee meetings are treated with respect, equity and impartiality, and in a manner consistent with their fundamental rights and the rights and privileges of the Assembly and the MNAs.

The proposals are a response to the wishes expressed by many observers, including the Québec Bar Association, that echoed the concern felt by many citizens concerning the manner in which they were treated and heard during committee meetings, and concerning the respect of their rights. On two occasions, in 1984 and 1989, the National Assembly received recommendations from experts that it should adopt rules to ensure the protection of witnesses.5

Under the proposals, all persons testifying or presenting their memorandum before a parliamentary committee would enjoy immunity to protect them from prosecution; in the current legal context, only witnesses under oath enjoy such protection, pursuant to the Act respecting the National Assembly.6

A second important component of the proposals consists of new rules governing the summoning of witnesses. Currently, most witnesses do not receive a summons, but rather an invitation to appear before a committee during public consultations. The invitation is normally addressed to an individual or group, and the committee retains the right to summon a witness who refuses the invitation or fails to appear. At the request of a member of the committee, a person appearing before a committee may be required to testify under oath or to make a solemn declaration.

The new rules would require all persons summoned to appear to testify under oath or make a solemn declaration. On the other hand, rules similar to those used in the courts would apply during the examination of those summoned, in order to give them extra protection against improper questioning methods such as harassment and intimidation. Witnesses summoned to appear before a committee would be entitled to receive compensation for all reasonable expenses incurred in order to testify, as is presently the case for witnesses summoned to appear before a court.

Lastly, the proposals introduce new rules concerning all witness, whether summoned or not. Witnesses would be allowed to object to any question that would encroach their fundamental rights; for instance, witnesses could object to a question affecting their private life or their reputation, a matter that is not provided for in the current rules. Similarly, witnesses would be allowed to use the services of a legal advisor or a translator, at their own expense.

Conclusion

The committee reform process is not yet over. Currently, one theme is being examined and has been assigned priority by the Speaker’s Office and the two House Leaders: the form and content of committee reports.

In addition, it should be noted that the establishment of the Committee on Public Administration has led to results. After less than one year in existence, the committee has heard almost as many heads of the public bodies and agencies as the sectoral committees heard in the previous two and a half years. All its examinations have led to the formulation of conclusions and recommendations, in contrast to the former system.

During the present legislature, there has also been an increase in the number of mandates undertaken by the sectoral committees on their own initiative, and in the number of examinations of public bodies and agencies. The former have almost doubled as compared to the total for the previous two legislatures, while almost as many of the latter have been performed as during those two legislatures. Should this be taken as the sign of a new-found desire on the part of MNAs to exercise the powers conferred on them by the 1984 parliamentary reform? Only time will tell.

Notes

1. The special committees were known as the Special Committee on North-South Relations, the Special Committee on a National Trading Corporation, the Parliamentary Task Force on Employment Opportunities for the 80s, the Special Committee on the Disabled and the Handicapped, and the Parliamentary Task Force on the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements.

2. La réforme parlementaire, dix ans après – Les impacts de la réforme de 1984 sur les commissions parlementaires, Committees Secretariat, Quebec, March 1995, p. 17 (in French only).

3. Ibid., p. 21.

4. The power was exercised by the sectoral committees pursuant to the Act respecting the accountability of deputy ministers and chief executive officers of public bodies, assented to in 1993 and amended in 1995.

5. Namely, the report of the committee on the protection of witnesses before parliamentary committees, August 1984, and a report submitted by Albert Mayrand, Les témoins devant les commissions ou sous-commissions de l’Assemblée nationale, February 1989 (in French only).

6. According to the construction given to section 53 of the Act respecting the National Assembly by the Superior Court in Turgeon & Sinclair v. Théberge (January 23, 1987).

A Selection of Related Articles from Previous Issues of the Canadian Parliamentary Review


Marc-André Bédard. Internal Administration of the House: The Beginning in Quebec (1867-1868), vol. 9 (1):4-7, 1986.
Paul Bernier. The Quebec Member of Parliament at the Turn of the Century, vol. 3 (4):15-20, 1980.
Lawrence Cannon. Rules of Procedure in the Quebec National Assembly, vol. 13 (2):25-27, 1990.
Maurice Champagne. Questions for Debate in the Quebec National Assembly, vol. 5 (1):17-19, 1982.
Jean-Pierre Charbonneau. Parliamentary Reform in Quebec: Motives and Obstacles, vol. 20 (3):14-15, 1997.
Gaston Deschênes. Mini-Portrait of Members of the National Assembly, vol. 5 (3):14-16, 1982.
Réjean Landry. Parliamentary Control of Science Policy in Quebec, vol. 3 (4): 5-8, 1980.
Réjean Landry. Reform of Quebec’s Parliamentary Institutions: Evolution of Party Platform Proposals Since 1960, vol. 9 (3): 16-19, 1986.
Danielle Parent. New Standing Orders of the National Assembly, vol. 8 (3): 18-20, 1985.
Réjean Pelletier. Mathieu Proulx, Gaston Deschênes and Valmond Bouliane. Committee Systems in Quebec and Ontario: Structure and organisation, vol. 19 (1):25-30 and vol. 19 (2):20-26, 1996.
Mathieu Proulx. The Evolution of Quebec’s Parliamentary Institutions, vol. 6 (2): 14-15, 1983.
Denis Vaugeois. Opportunities for Members of the Quebec National Assembly, vol. 5 (2):20-23, 1982.

 

 


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 21 no 2
1998






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