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Canadian committees toil away

First off, a confession: Whenever a legislative committee lands a spot in the primetime spotlight — usually, although not invariably, a U.S. congressional panel in the throes of investigating a controversy generating headlines around the globe, as was the case with the recent grilling of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — I start steeling myself for the seemingly inevitable moment when someone will turn to me with the seemingly simple question: Why can’t our committees be more like that? 

There are, of course, any number of pat, pro forma answers: The unique structure of the U.S. legislative system gives its committees more independence from the government of the day than House committees, plus far more generous budgets for staffing, research and other support services. But while all that may be true, it doesn’t entirely answer the question: Leaving aside the always delicate matter of the bill (which is all the more delicate when taxpayers ultimately pick up the tab), our committees — both House and Senate varieties — have the same overall mandate to launch probes into issues of urgent or perennial public concern, the power to compel witnesses to appear and to demand the production of documents, records and other evidence. So why, then, do we so rarely see our committees embark on wide-ranging, fact-finding missions into current or ongoing controversies? 

Well, for starters, they do just that on a semi-regular basis, while also remaining at the ready to review proposed legislation — from omnibus bills to backbench bids — as well as go through the fine print of the estimates and other distinctly unglamorous chores that are nevertheless at the heart of a functioning parliamentary democracy. But unless a meeting holds the promise of jaw-dropping revelations or testimony from a high-profile public figure, it tends to slide below the radar of the daily political news cycle, which is usually focused on the main event in the House of Commons and, specifically, the latest cross-aisle contretemps between the prime minister and the party leaders hoping to supplant him (or her). 

Committees, in contrast, are viewed by most Hill denizens as the place where the nuts-and-bolts-work gets done, which, however necessary it may be, isn’t exactly must-see TV — not when it’s being done right, at least. 

Where, after all, is the compelling drama in watching MPs drop the partisan floor show and work collaboratively with their colleagues across the table to close an unintended loophole in a complex piece of legislation? 

We Hill reporters can, however, be depended on to drop pretty much whatever we happen to be doing if a committee meeting has gone — or is threatening to go — spectacularly off the rails. (This, it’s worth noting, was an all-too-frequent occurrence during the heyday of minority parliaments, when the then-Conservative government reportedly assembled a binder of procedural tactics aimed at blocking the opposition parties from teaming up to seize control of the agenda.)

At the same time, it’s not all the fault of the media. Even as I will go to the mat to defend the quiet competence exhibited by some committees and committee members, there are also any number of MPs who blithely tune out during the opening presentations and then proceed to ask question after that question has already been fully and completely answered — or spend all but the last 30 seconds of their allotted time on meandering preambles that have little to do with the testimony they’ve heard and everything to do with taking shots at their political adversaries. (In fact, some manage to do both simultaneously.) 

On balance, though, Canadians should take some comfort in the fact that, while our committees may be far more modest than their American counterparts — in size, scope and, with few exceptions, in ambition to make history — they are, for the most part, toiling away to maintain peace, order and good government behind the bright lights of the political theatre.

Kady O’Malley is a member of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa and writes about politics, procedure and process for iPolitics. She also appears regularly on CBC television and radio.

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