How to Manipulate Procedure and Stymie Committees

This is what comes of pulling the cable from our television set. Now that I’m getting most of my news from websites and blogs, I’m finding some information incomplete. My knowledge of the current goings on in parliament has been filtered through various interests, and maybe I’m not getting a clear picture of what’s really happening. If this is the case, I need to take my own initial assessments with grains of salt.

After writing this post about the Conservative party’s immature activities at the committee level, I received this comment from Andrew Jeanes:

With respect to committee room shenanigans, I wonder whether the Liberals ever had an instruction manual for carrying them out, as it would seem do the Conservatives.

Purely aside from questions of partisan politics, I’ve always been interested in the relative level of respect different governments have for parliamentary procedure. I would almost rather support a government with whom I have ideological differences but that supports and mantains the value of the legislature, than one whose policies I’m inclined to agree with, but that enacts those policies through tactics that limit debate, routinely forces closure on votes, reduces the number of days that the house sits, etc.

I have to admit I was a little confused. What was Andrew talking about? But then this post by Greg Bester sent me into outrage overload.

There’s a manual? These immature shenanigans have been orchestrated by the Prime Minister’s Office? This is a deliberate and coordinated attempt to stymie democracy rather than the actions of a few frustrated, overstressed MPs? How dare they?! The Paul Martin Liberals took a lot of flack for pushing back opposition days in a desperate attempt to stave off defeat, and rightly so, but this strikes me as much worse.

But taking a few minutes to cool down, and actually reading the Don Martin column that Greg Bester points to, I have to wonder if this issue hasn’t been a little bit overblown.

That Don Martin received a leaked document proscribing behaviour by government members on committees is news, and the content of this document is news, but Don Martin is writing a column here. He is allowed to inject his own personal opinions, which he does. Consider the following paragraphs.

The manual offers up speeches for a chairman under attack and suggests committee leaders have been whipped into partisan instruments of policy control and agents of the Prime Minister’s Office. Among the more heavy-handed recommendations in the document:

That would be, heavy-handed in the opinion of Don Martin, not necessarily heavy-handed in fact. This jumped right out at me and diminished his point, in my opinion. I don’t like being told that something is heavy-handed. Just point me to the paragraphs and let me decide for myself.

  • That the Conservative party helps pick committee witnesses. The chairman “should ensure that witnesses suggested by the Conservative Party of Canada are favourable to the government and ministry,” the document warns.

I have some problems with how this is worded, and I’ll go into more detail about this in a point below, but the fact that the government should help pick witnesses sounds to me like a statement of fact. If you take the approach that the opposition is going to bring in witnesses that match their own basic viewpoints, then the government should bring in witnesses with their own viewpoints so that the issue up for discussion gets a fair hearing from all sides.

  • The chairmen should also seek to “include witnesses from Conservative ridings across Canada” and make sure their local MPs take the place of a member at the committee when a constituent appears, to show they listen and care.

I don’t particularly have a problem with this, and indeed, I could see opposition members doing this without having to refer to a manual. If I’m to testify before a Commons committee, I would certainly appreciate the gesture if my local MP were present to hear me speak. If they actually cared and were willing to listen, that is a Good Thing (tm), and something I would want to encourage.

  • The chairmen should “meet with witnesses so as to review testimony and assist in question preparation.”

Now, I do have a concern about this point, since it sounds suspiciously to me like coaching a witness, and I know that many jurisdictions frown on this practise. I’m not sure what one can do to stop this from happening, but that doesn’t make it right.

  • Procedural notes tell the chairmen to always recognize a Conservative member just before a motion is put to a vote “and let them speak as long as they wish” —a manoeuvre used to kick-start a filibuster as a stall tactic.

I admit that this is somewhat slimy. Whereas the other procedures above were sound pieces of advice that could be open for abuse, there is little reason for this procedure other than to stymie the work of a committee, simply because the government side doesn’t like the result.

  • Chairmen are told to notify all affected ministries prior to a motion being voted upon. “Communicate concerns with the Prime Minister’s Office, House leader or whip,” the document insists. “Try to anticipate the response of the press and how party could be portrayed.”

Not really a problem here, beyond micromanagement from Stephen Harper’s office, and only a slight tweak of a committee’s work in order to ensure that the political office is ready to give the results a proper spin. I’m willing to bet that the opposition members of the committees also have lines of communication open to their respective party leaders. It’s only prudent.

But I suspect that this line item above is the reason why the document was leaked. More later.

  • The guide says a “disruptive” committee should be adjourned by the chairman on short notice. “Such authority is solely in the discretion of the chair. No debate, no appeal possible.” By failing to appoint the vice-chair to run the meeting, the adjournment will last until the chair is ready to reconvene the committee.

And, again, this is a piece of sound advice for handling difficult committees that unfortunately can be abused by especially truculent government committee chairs. There should be a mechanism in place to get committee members, regardless of their political stripe, to cool it, but there is a fine line between cooling overheated rhetoric, and jamming the wheels of democracy.

Don Martin goes on:

Ironically, the manual also advises committee chairs to act fairly and build trust with members of all parties, getting to know them personally as well as politically.

It warns chairs not to “use negative body language” or “use humor inappropriately” and tells them not to “interrupt unnecessarily or argue with individual members” — orders clearly ignored by some of the more partisan chairs.

And this might also have been one of the reasons the document got leaked. Nobody likes to be told what they already know.

Given the above, it’s instructive that stalwart Liberal Jason Cherniak laughed off the discovery of the manual, saying:

I don’t blame the Government for playing procedural games. That is how a minority keeps control of the House. As long as they follow the rules to the best of their ability and accept the ruling of the Speaker when he says they have gone too far, I have no complaints. That said, I obviously support the opposition in their equally fair attempts to gain as much control as possible. This is not a crisis; it is par for the course.

The manual itself rather publicly eliminates the credibility of the Conservatives’ claim that the current obstruction in parliament is all the opposition’s fault (there is a real danger here that the public will just say ‘a plague on all your houses’ again), but it does little else. Once you get past the initial rhetoric, I think many voters will find that there is nothing more sinister here than a bit of Machiavellian common sense.

But the discovery of the manual does highlight again the micromanagement coming from Stephen Harper’s office, and it should be disturbing to Conservatives in another way. As Greg Bester points out, this manual was leaked, and only the Prime Minister’s Office, and various committee chairs (Conservative MPs all of them) had access to copies. Which means the leak likely came from a Conservative MP, and likely occurred because the manual itself was seen as something of an insult from the PMO delivered to the Conservative back bench.

It was only a matter of time before this PMO’s micromanagement rubbed some MPs the wrong way. Small cracks may be appearing within the discipline of the Conservative party.

blog comments powered by Disqus