Crumbling committees, crumbling Constitution

Parliamentary committees might seem the ideal place to die of boredom. Actually they’re not that interesting … unless pathology fascinates you. The high point of my recent two-week period watching them was Tory MP Mike Lake telling colleagues trying to draft a bill, “This isn’t a high school project here.” If it had been, it would have fizzed a bit then leaked gunk onto the desk. I don’t need to tell you Parliament is in disrepair. Literally: You saw the crumbling masonry in Tuesday’s Citizen. But on May 15 in West Block room 209 I watched the Government Operations and Estimates committee try in vain to figure out how much they’re already spending to fix a building threatening to fall on their very own heads. You can get the minutes online, but they don’t capture the special flavour. It amounts to a crisis in self-government.

Yeah, yeah, sure. Question period is a disgrace. But why committees? you yawn. Because there, if anywhere, our MPs could do constructive work.

I realize they differ on policy and, in principle at any rate, on philosophy. But in committees, away from the glare of TV cameras, they should be able to put angry partisanship on hold and do four important things together: examine legislation for technical flaws; investigate specific things that have gone wrong; scrutinize spending before it happens; co-operate to make Parliament itself function.

Now you laugh. But MPs are supposed to revere not just self-government in theory but its parliamentary version in practice. Which, I venture to remind them, evolved subtly over centuries to manage partisan differences deeper than theirs, over bigger issues, among abler men.

Regrettably, most MPs today seem to think partisanship is principle. Our Tories aren’t conservative. The Grits’ policy files contain only bumper stickers about inclusiveness and competitiveness, while few NDPers could discuss the relationship between, say, their socialism and that of George Bernard Shaw. And there’s little more to the Bloc’s separatism than spite. But give them purple faces, wagging fingers and an eight-second TV “hit” and they think they’re Abraham Lincoln. It’s a mental desert out there, where cunning passes for conscience and Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s quaint phrase “the treasury benches” falls on deaf ears. Where are the Stanley Knowles of yesteryear, committed idealists and partisans who also loved Parliament?

Not in committee, I can tell you that. Two weeks back, upholding the highest standards of the journalistic profession, I arrived at a Government Operations and Estimates committee meeting on the Main Estimates six minutes late and missed it entirely. I don’t say MPs, finding the room vexatiously warm, abdicated their core responsibility of scrutinizing proposed spending in five minutes. No. They took just two.

To atone for my sins, I switched to a nearby Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities Committee session for a scheduled clause-by-clause vote on private members’ bill C-303: “An Act to establish criteria and conditions in respect of funding for early learning and child care programs in order to ensure the quality, accessibility, universality and accountability of those programs, and to appoint a council to advise the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development on matters relating to early learning and child care.” Sheer poetry. And sheer incompetence.

After MPs tormented some witnesses with questions that illuminated nothing but their own lack of preparation, the NDP tried to pass a flurry of last-minute amendments to a bill from one of their own, plus two “friendly” subamendments to “friendly” Liberal amendments but apparently the sponsors hadn’t consulted so they never got to the main amendments. Nobody here can play this game.

Instead, after trading banal insults, the NDP, Liberals and Bloc mechanically voted for everything they actually got to, while the Tories mechanically abstained, unwilling to vote “yea” to measures no one there including the experts could explain, but unwilling to vote “nay” for fear of being pilloried in the House and the press as bad, awful meanies.

When I fled this shambles, an attempt to adjourn was mired in partisan wrangling. Since then, the Official Languages committee has disintegrated, the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics committee witnessed an ill-tempered and pointless five-hour filibuster, a Senate committee got poisonously partisan over Kyoto, and a procedural manual became bitterly controversial.

This all-party display of incompetence, vacuity and mean-spiritedness eventually made committees front-page news. But it’s no way to run a parliament. In fact, if it were a high school project, it would get an F as late, incomplete and incompetent.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]