UPFRONT

TICKING TIME BOMBS

Committees could derail the minority Liberals—or make Ottawa work for us

Mary Janigan July 19 2004
UPFRONT

TICKING TIME BOMBS

Committees could derail the minority Liberals—or make Ottawa work for us

Mary Janigan July 19 2004

TICKING TIME BOMBS

ON THE ISSUES

Committees could derail the minority Liberals—or make Ottawa work for us

Mary Janigan

FOR THE governing Liberals, life was so very sunny last February when they outlined their lofty scheme to reform Parliament. In a news release of grandiloquent prose peppered with hip jargon, they promised to ensure fuller scrutiny of government spending, better liaison between cabinet ministers and ordinary MPs, and higher-profile roles for Commons committees. In reality, the changes were more cosmetic than real: when the government wanted to end committee hearings into the sponsorship scandal, Liberal MPs obediently used their majority to stop the inquiry. The velvet leashes remained.

That was so then. These days, teetering in a minority position, the Liberals may have to swallow more democracy than they ever contemplated. And, unlike previous minority governments, their situation is far more perilous because of parliamentary changes in the way a crucial stage of the legislative process works. During past minority governments, only two or three committees of MPs—which scrutinize bills in detail before the final votemet at any one time. And government directives rigorously constrained their investigative scope. There are now 19 Commons committees. And, since 1983, their mandate is no longer limited: committees themselves now decide when they will meet and what they will probe.

This was all very well when there was a majority: discipline ensured that legislative amendments were adopted only if ministers wanted them.

Now, as Peter Dobell, founding director of Ottawa’s non-profit Parliamentary Centre, has observed, the Liberals cannot count on

behind-the-scenes deals with other parties on individual bills to ensure their passage. In the camaraderie of committee work, opposition MPs may band together, find common ground and vote for embarrassing amendments. Grit MPs may even join them.

The government will find it hard to keep track of every committee. That trouble will be compounded by the fact that, before Parliament dissolved for the election, spending estimates were approved to only Dec. 31. Committees must now scrutinize each department’s estimates for the rest of 20042005. What happens if a committee votes to trim funds in a way the government doesn’t want? This is largely unknown turf: since rule changes in 1968 that first sent estimates to committees, only two committees have ever dared to amend them. (The Liberals managed to handle those outbreaks.)

All of this means big trouble for the government. And far more fun and challenge for all ordinary MPs. Paul Martin wants to prove his minority can accomplish “great things.” That may be. But he must winnow his countless priorities to a few measures— because everything will slow down. Ministers will devote a lot more time to committee hearings, placating MPs. Those MPs, in turn, will consult their caucuses about almost everything. “You have got to negotiate carefully,” warns Dobell, “and realistically.”

On the other hand, nobody wants an early election: under the new arcane party financing law, the Tories and Liberals now owe money to Ottawa because they received advances before the election that their subsequent share of the popular vote did not merit. So maybe this Parliament will creep along nicely. And maybe ordinary MPs will come to savour the chance to make a real difference. They just may find a way to make Ottawa work. For us. I?]

All of this means big trouble for the Paul Martin governmentbut also a lot more fun and challenge for ordinary MPs

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com