At the time this article was published
Mike Breaugh was Chair of the Standing Procedural Affairs Committee in the
Ontario Legislative Assembly.
Committees are like the weather: everyone complains
about them, but no one does anything about them. The Procedural Affairs
Committee of the Ontario Legislature issued a report in June 1980 entitled,
"Proposals for a New Committee System". This was an important attempt
to improve the operation of legislative committees. In this article the author
highlights a few of the report's central recommendations. Another view of the
committee report appears in the publications section of the Review.
One reason I think our report is important
is that no one has stepped back and taken a serious look at our committee
system since the Camp Commission was wound up in 1975. Since then we have had
five years of minority government and, partly because of the minority
situation, we have seen tremendous changes in the whole nature of committee
work. These changes have been mostly unplanned and experimental, and we thought
it was time for a thorough reappraisal of the whole committee system.
We decided it was important to find out what
the Members thought about committees, so we canvassed their opinions by
questionnaires and discussion papers. We also asked Members to give us their
comments on the committee system either in writing or in person. Although only
a few Members participated in our work in this formal way, all Members of the
Committee spent a good deal of time talking to their colleagues about
We visited the United States Congress and
the House of Commons in Ottawa to see their committees in operation and to talk
to their Members and staff. Many of us also had the opportunity to discuss
committees with legislators and with legislative staff from several Canadian
provinces, from Britain and from other Commonwealth countries. We were
particularly fortunate in that the Fifth Canadian Regional Seminar of the CPA
was held at Queen's Park in October, 1979. Several Members of the Committee
took part in this seminar, which was entirely devoted to parliamentary
The Committee also reviewed reports on
committees from other jurisdictions, most notably the position paper on the
Reform of Parliament released late last year by the Conservative Government in
Ottawa and the 1978 report of the British Select Committee on Procedure.
For all this advice and information, though,
the bulk of our work (which took almost two years) consisted of discussing the
strengths and weaknesses of our current committee system among ourselves.
Before talking about the actual report, I
should describe the Committee briefly. With only 8 Members, this is a small
committee; I think everyone agrees this is essential to the committee's
success. Equally important, it is non substitutable, that is, only the House
can make changes in our membership. This is unusual for the Ontario
Legislature, but it has helped us greatly since essentially the same group of
people has been together for nearly two years. There's nothing more frustrating
or inefficient than constantly retracing a Committee's steps for new Members.
All the Committee Members are interested in the rules, but none of us are anything
like 'experts' on parliamentary procedure. Our concern is not with procedural
niceties, but with developing workable rules, and a workable committee system.
The final point about the Committee is that although we have had our
disagreements, we've been able to operate in an atmosphere relatively free from
party wrangling. Partly this is because rule changes do not exactly rate as
front page political issues, and partly because we are all such reasonable,
Restructuring the Committee System
Our report begins with the recognition that
committees in the Ontario Legislature are already so busy that it is just not
practical to think about further expanding their work. Instead, we concentrated
on enabling committees to do their work more effectively.
We had little difficulty in identifying two
central problems of the current committee system: first, with sixteen Members,
our most important committees are simply too large; secondly, substitution of
Members (which normally requires only a note to the Chairman) is far too
widespread. Agreeing on how to deal with these problems was not so easy. In the
end, we recommended reducing the maximum size of committees to 10, and
eliminating substitution for many committee activities. Of course, smaller
committees will require less substitution. and our other proposals for
restructuring the committee system will also reduce the need for substitution.
Many of our proposals focus on the obvious
shortcomings of the large "policy field" committees, the heart of the
current committee system. These are sixteen-Member committees, which follow the
same groupings as Government ministries and agencies: resources development,
social development, administration of justice and general government. These
committees deal with estimates, legislation and special studies within their
fields. On paper it looks like a rational, efficient set-up. The only problem
is that it does not work. No committee can deal knowledgeably with such diverse
topics as environmental affairs, labour, and transportation policy, to name
only a few of the topics which fall to the resources committee. Given this
range of activity, every time you blink, several Members have been substituted
onto the committee. To say the least, this plays havoc with continuity. In our
research, we discovered that more than one Member in every four at a policy
field committee meeting was substituting for someone else.
The reality is that the policy field
committees are little more than empty vessels which are filled, by
substitution, with the Members interested in each item of business. They might
just as well be called "Committee A", Committee 13, and so on. To
illustrate how meaningless the division into policy fields has become, we point
out that last year the estimates of the Resources Development Secretariat were
considered in the Social Development Committee rather than in the Resources
Our view was that since each task currently
performed by the policy field committees estimates, legislation and special
enquiries calls for a different approach, each should be handled by a different
type of committee. We thus recommended that the policy, field committees be
retained. but only. for the review of policy, with legislation considered in
special ad hoc committees, and estimates and financial matters dealt with by an
altogether new Finance and Economic Affairs Committee.
In developing our proposal for how
legislation should be handled in committee, we took our cue from the British,
who strike a new committee for each bill and then dissolve the committee when
it is finished with the bill. Since we already substitute the Members with
interest or expertise in particular bills onto the policy field committees
studying them, this would not represent much of a change. In that the bills
committees would not have to worry about juggling several sets of' estimates
and special studies while they reviewed bills, this approach would reduce
scheduling bottlenecks and permit more expeditious consideration of legislation.
This would be a major improvement for the Government, which currently has
severe problems piloting its legislation through the standing committees.
Our report recommended that the current four
policy field committees by retained (but reduced in size) to conduct policy
reviews and special studies. We proposed that all annual reports of Government
ministries and agencies be permanently referred to the policy committees and.
serve as their terms of reference. By and large this would not represent much of
a change from the current situation; by a rather roundabout method, the policy
field committees have in effect enjoyed fairly open-ended terms of reference.
Our proposal aims at doing this in a more sensible way, and at untangling
policy reviews from estimates and legislation.
A New Finance Committee
One of the most difficult areas we dealt
with was how the Legislature, through its committees, can keep tabs on the
billions of dollars that modern governments spend. Virtually everyone agreed
that, as far as financial accountability is concerned, committee review of
estimates is a total disaster. Sometimes we get worthwhile policy debates
during the estimates, but no one in the Ontario Legislature is seriously
examining the seventeen billion dollars of annual government spending before it
is spent. (The Public Accounts Committee only looks at past spending). Part of
the problem is that only a few Members are really interested in doing the tough
slogging required in examining government finances, most Members would prefer
to talk about the underlying policy. This is understandable, but it means that
we have virtually lost Parliament's traditional power of the purse.
The Auditor General of Canada, the Lambert
Royal Commission on Financial Management and Accountability and the Business
Council on National Issues are only some of the groups and individuals who have
spoken out on the need for Parliament to take better care of the taxpayer's
dollars. There is no agreement, however, on how to accomplish this; after much
discussion, we came to agree with an Australian committee report which
There are two lessons to be learned from
British and Canadian experience. The function of financial scrutiny should he
entrusted to specialist committees, not added to the functions of other
committees. Financial committees, if they are to effectively scrutinize public
expenditure, should be required to avoid consideration of policy.
The solution we have proposed to this very
difficult problem is the establishment of a Finance and Economic Affairs
Committee. All estimates would be referred to this committee; in addition, the
committee would have broad terms of reference to review Ontario's fiscal and
economic policies and to study budget papers, financial documents. tax legislation
and the like.
The Finance Committee would not, of course,
be able to review all estimates in depth. Instead it would concentrate on a few
sets each year, perhaps limiting its scrutiny, to votes and items experiencing
significant changes from one year to the next. The Committee would also review
long term spending projections and economic forecasts, prepared by government
and by independent institutes such as the Ontario Economic Council. As well, it
would consider all aspects of provincial economic and fiscal policy; the
economic implications of the size of the provincial deficit; the relationship
of expenditure programs to the revenue side of the ledger (such as the taxes
generated by subsidies to particular industries); options available to the province
in matters of municipal finance and so on.
As this brief sampling of the Finance
Committee's work suggests, its importance would lie not only in enhancing
Parliamentary scrutiny over the disposition of public funds, but also in
informing Members of the complexities and details of modern public finance.
In dealing with the question of staff for
committees, we began with two premises. In the first place. we agreed that effective
committee work is heavily dependent on staff support. The issues are simply too
complex, and the competing demands on Members' time too great for committees to
function properly without the research, screening of witnesses, summarizing of
testimony and related services that staff can provide.
On the other hand, our second premise Is
that no matter how hardworking or talented the staff may be. the onus will
always be on the elected politicians to make the committees successful.
Our report is not aimed at creating vast
hordes of committee staff; instead, we want to establish a small pool of
experienced, able people to assist committees. To a certain extent this is
already happening through the new Research Service of our Legislative Library,
however, this is only a small unit, and is also responsible for providing
research assistance to individual Members. For this reason we recommended that
a Committee Branch be set up in the Clerk's Office to provide staff for
committees. This might actually save money since it would mean that committees
would not need to hire outside counsel or consultants at $75 an hour, which is
often the case now.
In essence our view is that committees
should be served by a small, expert, in-house staff. We do not think it is a
good idea to expand committee staff very much. However, it is essential that
Members receive better research help as individual Members so that they can
devote more time and attention to their committee work. We therefore
resurrected a recommendation from a Select Committee Report of several years
back that each M PP be entitled to a personal researcher.
In conclusion. it is only fair to point out
that although the report represents the Committee's thinking in a general way,
probably every Member of the Committee has reservations about particular
recommendations. We knew that unanimous agreement was impossible, but I think
we did manage to achieve a reasonable consensus. We also felt that it was
important to put forward to the Legislature a coherent set of concrete
proposals for improving the committee system.
Improving the committee system is in
everyone's interest. I think that our Committee has made reasonable, workable
proposals for doing just that.