ITQ FAQ: So you’ve broken the parliamentary system (from the archives)

Are committees really broken, or are our elected officials just being great big drama queens because they can’t have everything their own way?

Well, first off, it’s worth noting that, of the 27-odd committees that are currently active, only three – or, to split hairs, 2.5 – have hit the point of no return:

  • Procedure and House Affairs, which hasn’t met for over a month due to a filibuster-induced implosion that resulted after the government blocked an investigation into Conservative campaign ad spending practices;
  • Justice, which does occasionally meet, but only for long enough for the chair to give a speech about how outrageously badly opposition members are behaving, and then stomp out of the room;

  • Environment, which is technically still working, but has been stuck in suspended animation, procedurally speaking, for weeks due to a government-initiated filibuster against a bill on climate change proposed by the NDP. FIXED! Well, for the moment. Details on how it happened here.

The rest of the lot, however, are still functional – some more functional than others, it’s true – although quite a few haven’t studied a bill in months, although that’s mostly due to the ultralight legislative agenda, not opposition monkey-wrenching. With no pending parliamentary assignments, committees with time on their collective hands are free to hold hearings into any issue of the day that can be shoehorned into their mandates.

That, in fact, is exactly how the trouble started for both Procedure and House Affairs, and Justice. In each case, opposition members joined forces to push for an investigation into a current Conservative scandal — the ‘in and out’ campaign spending scheme, and the Cadman Affair, respectively — whereupon government members – who can be be outvoted by a united opposition — began filibustering furiously to prevent the proposals from going to a vote.

What exactly does that mean, as far as getting stuff done?
That seems to depend on who – and when – you ask.

Up until recently, if you used the phrase “committee meltdown” in front of Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, or one of his staffer, they would explain, in painstaking, hairsplitting detail, how really, the Justice committee was still working, it was just — working at a frequency too high to register on normal human ears, in a somewhat unorthodox way.

As for Procedure and House Affairs, the government didn’t seem too fussed when it fell into a persistent vegetative state, and simply stopped scheduling meetings after the opposition banded together to install the current chair, Joe Preston, against his express wishes. (ITQ, of course, was there, and can confirm that his piteous mewling: “This is indentured servitude! You can’t do this! I have rights” made even her stone-cold heart melt a little.) But until the now infamous Easter ruling by House Speaker Peter Milliken, the government wasn’t ready to admit there was a problem, which made it difficult to blame the opposition.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, the strategy has shifted. Now, we have the Government Whip playing a game of confidence chicken with the opposition, hinting that, if the situation isn’t resolved, the Prime Minister may be forced to go to the Governor General to dissolve an irreconcilably divided Parliament. To do so, he would presumably have to make the case that a) there was actual stuff that his government wanted to get done, and b) that committees were preventing him from doing so.

That’s right. Didn’t Milliken blame the opposition for the current state of affairs, and warn against the “tyranny of the majority”?

First, a request — if you love your ITQ blogger even a little, or at the very least, don’t want to cause her to flinch like someone just grabbed the last can of Red Bull, please don’t repeat that phrase except when absolutely necessary, as it is well on its way to becoming the most overused cliche on the Hill.

Second; no, that’s not what he said. Really. Despite the fact that the Conservatives seem to be under the impression that they must reference Milliken’s ruling whenever possible, anyone who bothers to read the whole thing – all ten pages of it – will come to the conclusion that the Speaker was actually condemning the Olympic-calibre games of silly buggers being played by all parties, not just the opposition.

As for the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ that can just as accurately describe the alliances that arise between Conservatives on a committee, and the lone NDP member as the Bloc Quebecois/Liberal voting bloc. Milliken, in fact, was specifically addressing the recent trend of overriding the decisions of the chair through a simple majority vote – something that has occurred under both Liberal and Conservative chairs, and with the backing of government and opposition members alike.

Is there any way to resolve this, short of pistols at dawn for the party whips?
That’s hard to say, really. At this point, there seems to be little incentive for either the government or the opposition parties to back down. Most MPs will play lip service to the idea of “making Parliament work,” and make noises about finding a way out of the current impasse by acting in good faith, and all that stuff, but at this point, you could cut the acrimony with a knife, and serve it as cheesecake – and that’s just in the House of Commons. It’s gotten to the point where the probability of fisticuffs breaking out in the committee room approaches 1:1.

Oh well. In that case, what’s the next committee most likely to fall apart?
ITQ predicts that the next casualty of the committee war will be —- (drum roll) —- Government Operations and Estimates. Mostly because it has a mandate that is elastic enough to allow opposition fact-finding expeditions into everything from alleged political interference by the Prime Minister’s deputy communications director to — alleged political interference by the Prime Minister’s favourite Ottawa boy and Environment Minister, John Baird.

Any more questions? Feel free to drop me an email and I’ll do my best to come up with the answer.

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