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Graham White

Committees in Legislatures: A Comparative Analysis by John D. Lees and Malcolm Shaw, Duke University Press, 1979, 449 p.

Good books often provoke stimulating questions. Sadly, Committees in Legislatures prompts one basic question: why was such an outdated book published?

The book stems from conferences held in 1969 and 197 1, and it is evident that the papers have seen little, if any, revision since then. Now it is unfair to expect a book published in 1979 to include material on the important changes in Westminster's committee system stemming from the 1978 report of the Procedure Committee. However, surely we deserve better than an analysis of the committees of the Canadian House of Commons which treats the 1968 reforms as experimental, and a treatment of Indian committees written entirely prior to the 1975 "emergency", to take only two particularly irksome examples. In a sense. the essay on committees of the Phillipine Congress by Robert Jackson is all too symbolic of the whole enterprise: the Congress and its committees ceased to exist in 1972 when President Marcos declared martial law!

The great pity is that the idea behind the book was first-rate: assemble a team of specialists to analyse the workings of committees in eight national Legislatures: Canada, the United States, India, Japan, West Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the Philippines. This would offer the reader authoritative reviews of particular committee systems and would also provide the basis for more analytical attempts to draw general conclusions about legislative committees.

The eight academics and one practioner responsible for individual chapters demonstrate a sure grasp of their subjects and generally write well. Several of the chapters, especially those on the United Kingdom and West Germany by S. A. Walkland and Nevil Johnson, are particularly adept in analysing committees within the broad context of a nation's political culture and its overall legislative setting. Perceptive as such insights are, they represent but a small proportion of the book, the bulk of which is given over to extensive detail on the structure and operation of the various committee systems. Much of this material is either outdated or else is of marginal interest to the 1980 reader. Michael Rush's piece on Canada, by way of illustration, is heavily, based on surveys of MPs conducted in 1968 and 1970.

Although the editors did not impose a rigid framework on their contributors, each chapter sets out the basics of the political environment within which each committee system operates, and provides the essential information as to committee membership, structure, influence, staff and the like, as they were about 1970. A certain uneveness is evident in that not all chapters discuss the same topics; the chapter on Italy, for instance, makes no mention of committees in the control or oversight of government finance.

The conclusion, by editor Shaw, struggles mightily to divine patterns across the eight committee systems. He reaches few non obvious conclusions, but is occasionally led astray by surface appearances: "legislatures where British influence is strong give special emphasis to finance at the committee level". Particularly disappointing is Shaw's failure to draw upon the extensive research done into political behaviour in small groups as an approach to understanding legislative committees.

In sum, unless one is interested in decade old information on committees in eight legislatures, and is willing to shell out $19.75 (U.S.) for it. this book has little to commend it.

Graham White

Assistant Clerk

Ontario Legislative Assembly

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 3 no 4

Last Updated: 2020-03-03