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Réjean Pelletier; David E. Smith

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Fifth Canadian Regional Seminar, Toronto, October 15-19, 1979, 217 pp & appendix 73 pp.

This is a difficult publication to review. It comprises five background papers and over two hundred pages of transcribed discussions on the topic of legislative committees. While the focus is fixed mainly on Canadian experience (and here principally on MPs at Ottawa and MPPs at Toronto), the experience in other Jurisdictions. especially Great Britain and the United States, is discussed frequently enough to make the study a work in comparative legislative behaviour as well.

However, the volume's scope and especially its manner of presentation detract from the importance the subject deserves. Quite clearly, as they are discussed here, there are committees and, then again, there are committees. Those that examine Public Accounts or Statutory Instruments are vital elements of the parliamentary system but their experiences, here and abroad, are described as qualitatively different from the experience of standing and select or special committees. The contrast, of course, is that while their manner of operation and degree of success in fulfilling varied terms of reference may differ from legislature to legislature, their raison d'être is seldom questioned. The same cannot be said of those other committees whose relationship to the bureaucracy who serve them, the executive who seeks to direct them, or the political parties who select their membership is almost constantly in dispute. The participants in these discussions are unanimously unhappy with the way this latter group of committees operate.

On the evidence of this volume a verbatim record of the seminar discussion is a mixed blessing for those who did not attend the meeting. The sense of immediacy is conveyed well enough but it is immediacy in the presence of a lengthy and occasionally wandering discourse. With the exception of the background research papers, the rest of the discussion is best described, in the words of one participant, as "fluid". In this context, fluid too often means repetitious, tedious and aimless. It is for this reason that those sessions of the seminar devoted to committee work on public accounts or statutory instruments are welcome. As well, comparisons drawn by visitors from the United Kingdom and the United States between their experience and what they have heard of Canada prove memorable. For instance, the British system, which in contrast to Canada has displayed in recent years less discipline on the part of party leaders and more independence on the part of Individual members, reminds the reader how distinctive the Canadian system is despite its institutional similarities to that of Great Britain.

In his description of how Congressional committees work, Dr. Walter Kravitz, senior specialist in the Congressional Research Service, underlines the need to consider the whole of the political system when studying its parts: "What does all of this have to do with committees? Everything. The fundamental character of the committee system of the United States Congress is deliberately fashioned to meet these kinds of [partisan] circumstances. Because of the constant battle between the President and the Legislature committees are swung into line as major cannons in the battle. Committees give the Congress the kind of expertise it must have. I've heard discussion here about the usefulness of expertise, and how nice it would be. For the American Congress there is no option. This is an absolute necessity" (p. 93).

In the remarks by outsiders then there is a home truth which frequently, seems to be overlooked, or at least underestimated, by Canadian parliamentarians. The committee system here, just as in London or Washington, springs out of the roots of our experience ... and we pay costs. We have benefits, but we pay for everything" (p. 89). Canadian committees behave the way they do because the executive sits in Parliament and in the provincial legislatures. As elsewhere, the government seeks to dominate public life. But here they succeed most of the time because parliamentary life is infused with partisanism. It is true that some, maybe much, of the business before committees can be conducted with minimal partisan rancour but that is not the significant fact. What matters is that when dissent or disagreement emerges, the partisan whip lies to hand. In Canada, where distance displaces doctrine, loyalty to the party leader is tested in committee as well as in caucus. The benefit of this system is confident government; the cost has become attenuated national parties.

The scattered intervention by legislators from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, among others reminds the reader that there is a world of legislative experience outside Toronto and Ottawa. The comments suggest that it is a very different world. How different remains for another seminar, or better still, a book to elucidate.

David E. Smith

Department of Political Science

University of Saskatchewan

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Last Updated: 2020-03-03