the time this article was written David McInnes worked in Ottawa in the government relations and
public affairs fields. This article is an extract from a book to be published
this fall by the University of Ottawa Press (in the collection sponsored by the
Centre on Governance).
whether from the private or public sector, can face a daunting task in getting
their message across to parliamentarians and in ensuring that their appearance
before a standing committee of the House of Commons or Senate is a meaningful
one. This article highlights the unique nature of parliamentary committees and
then presents one tool for assisting prospective witnesses to prepare for their
Thousands of Canadians have
testified before House of Commons and Senate standing committees. During Jean
Chrétien’s tenure as prime minister, alone, well over 24,000 Canadians have
pitched their views before various parliamentary committees.1
These committees link Canadians
to their parliamentarians. There is really no other comparable forum for
Canadians to have input on the legislative and policy-making process on a
regular, formal and public basis.
Whether it is to present a case
on a fact-finding enquiry or to be embroiled in debate on the merits or costs
of clauses in a bill, committees enable Canadians to intersect the policy and
legislative process. Parliamentary committees are also the place where members
truly roll-up their sleeves to delve into the issues.
Of course, all public policy
advisors would agree on one key point: that to influence the policy-making
process its best to get in at the earliest stages. This confirms the importance
of the constant flurry of departmental consultations, caucus briefings and
private one-on-one meetings between parliamentarians and groups. Still,
parliamentary committees are unmatched in channelling Canadians’ views to
One researcher found that the
House of Commons spends a surprisingly limited amount of time for debate on
bills, an average of less than 8 hours per bill.2 Standing
committees, on the other hand, often devote dozens of hours to considering
bills with individual Canadians, as witnesses, being at the focus of attention.
Witnesses must make the best of
their testimony. They must get an edge over other groups which compete for the
ear of the member. Expert witnesses are not necessarily expert communicators.
While many preliminary steps are required to get ready, the following “last
minute checklist”, conducted just prior to appearing, might help you take your message
to the Hill (see box).
When considering that most
Members of Parliament are run off their feet by committee, constituency and
House work, witnesses must ensure that members quickly grasp your key points.
If messages do not resonate, groups can hardly expect members to carry their
issues forward or propose amendments. Many witnesses have their work cut out
for them. For instance, some four out of ten witnesses take too long to read
their opening remarks (and members are always anxious to get to their
questions). Nearly nine in ten written submissions rarely or occasionally
contain executive summaries.3
There are other compelling
reasons for witnesses to enhance their committee performance. A committee visit
may involve managing media relations; testimony may be of interest to ministers
or regulators; what is raised at committee could become an issue in Question
Period (which is particularly significant for public servants). If CPAC is
covering the hearing, a witness is also communicating to a national
TV-audience. In short, a committee appearance can be a linchpin for broader
communication efforts. (This explains why groups may use committees to table
fresh research or announce new initiatives.)
Effective testimonies can also
hinge on whether a relationship has been developed with members. Witnesses that
just blow into town for one meeting, drop their testimony and leave risk being
marginalized. Considering that MPs were exposed to over 2,000 hours of
testimony last year, a sixty-minute pitch must stand out.4 Capably
presenting the case is important. But seasoned witnesses rarely air their
solutions with members for the first time at the committee table. Working at
the constituency level, for instance, helps familiarize members to the issues.
The rule of thumb for witnesses
appearing before committees is tailor your strategy. Each committee is
different; it depends on whether it is a bill (and at what stage) or policy
enquiry; the mix of members vary; the political environment is ever-changing;
the issues evolve; and, witness messages must adapt to all this.
Public servants face some
additional challenges. Members become incensed when officials deliver
information in only one official language. Senators often feel that officials
present bills as a fait accompli and the ministers attempt to rush bills
through committee stage. Friction also arises at committee when officials are
seen to be less than forthcoming. Still public servants must be wary of
stepping over the line and go from explaining government policy decisions to
defending them. When appearing before committee, officials must be sensitive to
these and other concerns.
The bottom linefor private and
public sector witnesses: effectively appearing before committee requires good
planning and preparation. This is a challenge, indeed, when committees give you
short notice to appear.
Appearing Before a Parliamentary Committee: A Checklist
There are many factors to
consider before deciding to appear before a parliamentary committee and in getting
fully ready, such as agreeing to a hearing date, writing the submission &
opening remarks and choosing spokes-people. The day or morning before
appearing, conduct this last minute checklist.
- Telephone the clerk (the day
before) to confirm the meeting details (i.e., location, time).
- Confirm the time available to read
your opening remarks and the length of the question/answer session to
- Are there any substitutions on the
- Are there any last minute new
witnesses slotted to appear before or after you?
- Is the hearing going to be
televised (on CPAC)?
- Review the committee room layout
and seating arrangements of members for colleagues who have not
- Plan to leave for the hearing
early enough to clear security, find the room and get settled.
- What are your objectives in
appearing before the committee?
- Review your key messages that
support these objectives.
- For public servants, this must be
done by explaining the government’s policy decisions, not defending
them (as ministers are responsible for policy decisions).
- Do your opening remarks capture
your key messages?
- Do the remarks clearly identify
who you are and what you are responsible for?
- Read aloud your remarks to
colleagues. How long does it take to read? Is your voice monotone? Do
you look up? Do you show conviction?
- If you go over your allotted time
and are cut off, how would you conclude?
- Delivering these remarks with
sections of French and English makes a positive impression.
- Before saying a word at the
committee table, pause, take a breath, relax and then begin.
- Will committee members be
generally receptive or critical of your position or recommendations?
- Is the government generally
supportive of the committee’s enquiry (if it is not a bill)?
- What are the prevailing political
priorities of the government? Do any of your messages mesh with these?
Identify the Minefields
- Anticipate the two or three areas
of discussion that could present the most difficulty for you. Script
those answers now.
- Do members of your own association
or group (or for the public service, other government departments)
disagree with any major issue being presented by you that day?
- What are other key witnesses
likely to say at committee, or have said, that could potentially
undermine your position?
- Do you have the authority to
commit your group; i.e., if a member asks you to conduct further
research or to appear again before the committee?
- For public servants, could you be
criticized for inadequately briefing members prior to the bill in
question coming to committee or for rushing its consideration at
- Also for public servants, what you
say at committee could, for partisan reasons, be raised by a member in
Question Period. Advise the minister’s office of any relevant exchanges
with committee members.
Questions & Answers
- Estimate the number of questions
you could get within the time allotted to you.
- Consider the main concerns of each
- What is likely to be the lead
question from the official opposition? They ask the first question.
- What issues have come up in
previous testimony which could be also raised with you?
- Has an issue come up in Question
Period, or in House Debates, recently that will prompt questions?
- Has the national media recently
reported on a news story that could generate any critical questions?
Check the day’s newspapers.
- Have any local stories in member
ridings come up recently that could be raised at the table?
- If you appear with others, agree
beforehand which type of questions will be handled among your team?
- Be prepared for the chair to cut
off your long-winded answers.
- Conduct a simulation. Get a
colleague to ask tough questions. Even a twenty minute Q&A session
will help to polish your answers. Suggest more appropriate answers.
- Handling particularly aggressive
questioning requires a measured response. Speak directly to the chair. The
chair is responsible for maintaining decorum in committee.
- Use the tag-team approach. A
colleague at the table could offer a supplementary point if your
response does not hit the mark.
- Expect members to pose any
question they like. Politely defer to the chair to determine the
relevance of questions which consistently go well beyond the enquiry’s
terms of reference or bill at hand.
- Offer to get back to the committee
in writing on a question which requires a more thoughtful response.
- Suggest talking to a member
“off-line” following the meeting to address a specific constituent
complaint, although the member may prefer to address the principle of
the matter at the table.
- For public servants, there may be
issues best left to the department’s deputy minister to handle and
should not to be addressed by more junior officials appearing before
- Are you prepared to step into the
committee room with a positive, constructive attitude? Help members
understand your position, not confront them with it. A conscious
decision here will affect your tone and manner in committee.
- Who will conduct media interviews
if you are scrummed before or following your testimony?
- One off-the-cuff or negative
statement made during your testimony could become the headline. Assume
the media are monitoring your testimony.
- What you say to the media should
parallel what you say before the committee.
- Are your slides, charts, etc, in
order? Are they clear to read?
- Do you have enough copies of your materials,
in English and French, for all members, the media and others sitting in
- Referring to internal documents in
your testimony may prompt members to request that you table them for the
record. Are you sure that what you take to the table is what you want on
the public record?
- For public servants (and national
groups) do not table any document, such as circulating your opening
remarks, unless they are translated.
- Following the hearing, there are
subsequent steps to take, such as assessing your appearance, delivering
additional information to the committee and communicating your messages
to other parliamentarians.
1. This number includes
standing, special, sub- and joint parliamentary committees. Source: Committees and
Legislative Services Directorate of the House of Commons and the Senate
Committees and Parliamentary Associations Directorate, 35th Parliament,
1994-1997; 36th Parliament, September 1997 to April 1998.
2. “Obstruction in Ontario
and the House of Commons”, Chris Charlton in Canadian Parliamentary Review,
Autumn 1997, page 28. Bills took on average 7 hours and 45 minutes to become
law from 1974 to 1993; standing committee consideration was not included in
this time frame. (And, many House debates are delivered to a nearly-empty
3. From the author’s
survey of Parliamentary Research Bureau researchers (those who staff
parliamentary committees), May 1996.
4. “Activities and
Expenditures”, Annual Report 1996/97, Committees and Legislative Services
Directorate, the House of Commons, September 1997, page 6.