NATIONAL

‘THIS IS NOT YOUR FIEFDON, SIR’

No election date yet but in the committees, the fight’s already on

JOHN GEDDES August 25 2008
NATIONAL

‘THIS IS NOT YOUR FIEFDON, SIR’

No election date yet but in the committees, the fight’s already on

JOHN GEDDES August 25 2008

‘THIS IS NOT YOUR FIEFDON, SIR’

NATIONAL

No election date yet but in the committees, the fight’s already on

JOHN GEDDES

Whenever it comes, the next federal election campaign will begin in the House of Commons, the traditional theatre of Parliament and the place in which governments must officially fall. But in the less austere surroundings of the Hill’s committee rooms, the war has already begun. Indeed, it’s been raging for some time.

The conflict’s latest climax—or low point, depending on your perspective—came Monday morning with the resumption of a House of Commons ethics committee investigation into the Conservative party’s so-called in-andout election financing scheme. Conservative national campaign director Doug Finley was scheduled to testify Wednesday, but arrived uninvited two days early, he and his legal counsel commandeering a couple of chairs at the committee table. As soon as the meeting was called to order, a lengthy and contentious dispute erupted as to whether Finley would be permitted to testify. Amid an onslaught of procedural queries and the haranguing of Liberal chair Paul Szabo (“Do you not want to hear the truth, Mr. Chair?” mocked Conservative Gary Goodyear), a motion from the government side was put forward to adjust the schedule, but opposition members united to defeat it.

At that point, Szabo asked Finley and his counsel to withdraw from the table. Wordless, Finley stared back at Szabo, refusing to budge and bringing proceedings to a halt.

Several minutes into the standoff, two security officers appeared at the door, the largest of whom approached Finley and finally convinced him to depart. Various points of order, procedure and complaint followed— “This is not your fiefdom, sir,” Conservative Mike Wallace rebuked Szabo—with discussion at one point turning to whether or not the NDP’s Pat Martin had or had not dropped an “f-bomb.” Not until a full 38 minutes into the session did anyone get around to asking a question of the invited witnesses.

“I must say that after having watched the performance of certain members of this committee,” one witness, a former Conservative candidate, lamented to the committee, “I’m in fact really quite worried about the future of our parliamentary institutions.”

This week’s hearings are only the latest in a string of bitterly divisive proceedings. Against angry Conservative resistance, the ethics committee’s majority of opposition MPs decided to call about 30 Tories to testify about their party’s controversial ad-spending scheme. The Tories are already locked in a messy legal battle with Elections Canada, but the Liberals, in particular, insist the committee should also study the issue. Or perhaps study doesn’t quite capture their real intent. “This is not delving into an issue,” says Ned Franks, the respected

Queen’s University emeritus political science professor. “It’s trying to keep a pot boiling.”

In fact, the opposition parties have been trying for more than a year to use House committees to keep fires burning under a number of controversies the Tories would rather let cool. The ethics committee held high-profile hearings into former prime minister—and sometime Harper mentor—Brian Mulroney’s business dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber. The justice committee has been shut down over the Tories’ refusal to bow to opposition demands for hearings into whether Harper’s aides improperly offered Chuck Cadman, the late B.C. independent MP, money to rejoin the Conservatives. And the procedure and House affairs committee is similarly paralyzed as the government resists opposition demands that it also examine the in-and-out affair. Late last month, Harper slammed his adversaries for turning committees into “a bunch of kangaroo courts,” leaving little doubt he won’t be playing along.

The charge that the Liberals are abusing the committee system can’t be dismissed out of hand. After all, House committees have traditionally served as the dull, worthy, workhorses of Parliament, where the partisan slanging of question period usually gives way to low-key routine, allowing MPs to get down to the mundane, indispensable work of reviewing legislation and studying policy issues. MP Jay Hill, the chief government whip, says acquiescing to opposition pressure to commandeer committees for what he calls “transparently partisan purposes” might permanently undermine their proper function. “What happens in the next Parliament?” Hill says. “We’re setting precedents for how committees are going to be used that are worrisome.”

That sounds high-minded, and Hill emphasizes, in particular, that committees shouldn’t be examining issues that are the subject of court actions. Franks agrees that Parliament traditionally avoids wading into an issue that’s before a judge. Adhering strictly to that general rule would exclude the ethics committee’s hearings on in-and-out, since the Tories are challenging in court Elections Canada’s decision to disallow the way they moved ad money back and forth between local campaigns and their national election operation. The Cadman question would also be out of bounds, because the Conservatives are suing the Liberals over bribery accusations they levelled in the affair. But the Liberals counter that Harper is so unusually litigious that his tendency to go to court can’t be allowed to hobble committees.

As well, Liberals scoff at the notion that the Conservatives really view committees as bastions of multi-partisan co-operation. Back in 2004, the public accounts committee, then chaired by Tory MP John Williams, investi-

gated the sponsorship scandal while Paul Martin was prime minister. The committee even reported on it after Justice John Gomery’s judicial inquiry into the affair was up and running. “Did we like it? No,” recalls MP Karen Redman, the chief Liberal whip. “But we didn’t try to control everything. You didn’t see us using strong-arm tactics to stall any issue that we didn’t want to come forward.” Liberal MPs often complain that the Tories, under Harper, are unwilling to take the lumps that inevitably come with parliamentary democracy. “If you’re going to play a game,” says Liberal MP Marcel Proulx, “you’ve got to be ready to take the good and the bad. They don’t want the bad.”

THERE WAS TALK OVER WHETHER PAT MARTIN DROPPED AN‘F-B0MB’

During ethics committee proceedings this week, it was alleged that Conservative officials had advised witnesses not to appear—a charge that seemed to gain credence when several of those summoned failed to show up. Witnesses can be compelled to testify, but that requires an act of Parliament. “That’s way down the road,” Szabo says. “My sense is that people are basically good people. And maybe they’re getting some bad information or bad advice.” Those allegations of political interference could require investigation, but, Szabo adds, that matter would likely require the already stalled House affairs committee.

The charge extends to Harper’s hard-hitting counterattacks during question period, and his habit of keeping key ministers out of

the fray by having House leader Peter Van Loan answer almost any question that might sting. “I’ve never seen a government as aggressive in its partisan approach to parliamentary business as this one,” says Franks, an avid Parliament-watcher since the late 1950s.

As a result, Franks contends, the Tories have mostly themselves to blame for fostering an atmosphere in which the Liberals are more inclined than they might otherwise be to use committees for nakedly partisan purposes. It’s not really a new phenomenon: Franks points out that committee inquiries into scandals plagued both Sir John A. Macdonald and William Lyon Mackenzie King. Still, the atmosphere now is worse than any living MP can remember, and some veterans aren’t really enjoying it. “Relationships break down,” Hill says. “In some cases, longstanding relationships.” He blames the tension on a prolonged stretch of minority rule. “None of us knows from day to day when we’ll be thrown into an election.”

But will an election lead to more civil, more stable committees? A majority government— with the ruling party subsequently holding majority control of most committees—might eliminate much of the present squabbling, but neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have shown any sign of climbing above the required level of popular support. That would leave MPs after the next campaign right where they are now: needing to find a way for House committees to function. And as this week’s ethic committee hearings showed, neither side seems willing to bend to make the system work.

Liberals keep blaming Tories for lowering the overall tone and refusing to allow a normal airing of touchy issues. Conservatives accuse Liberals of exploiting committees to serve partisan purposes. Rather than easing, the tension is growing. Committees that once served as a dull refuge from the bruising side of federal politics are now more often the place where normal partisan rivalry corrodes into dysfunctional mutual mistrust. It would be tempting to say it can’t go on like this, except all indications are that it will—even beyond the coming election. M