Quick now, what does Judy Wilson-Raybould v Justin Trudeau, Gerald Butts, Michael Wernick et al have in common with Zach Churchill v Tim Houston, Ramona Jennex, Denise Peterson-Rafuse et al?
Well yes, of course, both feature all-powerful political bosses — Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of SNC-Lavalin infame and Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil of the Yarmouth ferry fandango respectively — who have made such a total balls-up of their political choices that events over which they could have had some control have morphed into scandals they cannot contain.
Yes, that. And that too. And also that, of course.
But I’m thinking of something else, something perhaps a tad more wonkish…
Ah, now you have it… Committees! The JWR and ZC affairs offer incontrovertible evidence our committee systems — federal and provincial, standing and legislative — fail us abysmally when it comes to holding our governments to public account for their actions.
This is, in large part, of course, the fault of the people in charge. Our sunny-ways prime minister’s I-have-something-to-hide refusal to allow Liberal MPs on the Commons justice committee to conduct a real hearing into the SNC-Lavalin affair (or even have a rational discussion about how to hold too-big-to-fail private corporations accountable for their crimes without jeopardizing the futures of their innocent workforce) and our own premier’s nothing-to-see-here dismissal of requests for the internal economy committee to look into allegations of bullying by Education Minister Zach Churchill (not to mention allowing other committees to call key witnesses on other matters) are of a crude, power-play piece.
But the system itself makes it all possible, even inevitable.
Ottawa’s 25 standing committees and countless legislative ones exist, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “to consider policy issues, to examine estimates and annual reports, and to scrutinize government legislation after second reading, including supply and ways-and-means legislation.”
The problem is not in their purpose but in their make-up — “party representation being proportionate to that in the House of Commons” — which means that, so long as there is a majority government and so long as that government gets to choose which of its yes-minister MPs get to sit on which committee, the committees themselves will ultimately be useless instruments of government propaganda.
I don’t have a simple answer to this problem, but it’s worth considering — and reminding ourselves how much better committees have worked during minority governments when the opposition gets to hold the majority of the seats on the committees and control their agendas.
That’s not to suggest such opposition-controlled committees can’t turn into pointless partisan fishing expeditions, the flip-side of the current, compliant government-ruled ones. Consider the US experience when Republican-dominated committees endlessly investigated the 2012 Benghazi attack during the Obama era or even the potential for Democratic overreach in investigating Trump by the current US House of Representatives.
That conceded, a system in which the opposition got to set the agenda and call the witnesses would still be preferable.
Will it ever happen? Probably not so long as we have majority governments, or so long as minority governments hope to become majority ones.
And so it goes.
A brief postscript to all the tributes to Halifax civil rights pioneer Joan Jones, who died last week.
Many people have referred to Joan’s quiet but significant role as “the power behind the throne” of her better-known then-husband Rocky Jones as they dragged Nova Scotians, kicking and screaming, into the civil rights’ 20th century during the 1960s and 70s.
To understand her significance, it may be worth repeating a few stories Rocky told me about his own political evolution while I was writing weekly profiles of interesting local people for the then-Halifax Daily News back in the 1990s.
One of 10 children from an over-achieving Truro black family (“I was always the one in the family to fuck up,” he’d recalled with a laugh), Rocky grew up accepting the day-to-day racism (he couldn’t bowl in the local alley, couldn’t play pool in the pool hall, couldn’t eat in certain restaurants) that was his daily lot in his hometown.
When he was 16, he quit school, joined the military and, three years later, found himself in Toronto where he’d landed a civilian job driving a tractor-trailer truck.
1960. Rocky Jones’ tooth is killing him. He needs a dentist but, having just arrived in an unfamiliar city, he doesn’t know any. Someone suggests he see a “Dr. Best on Dundas Street.” But when Jones shows up for his appointment, he suddenly changes his mind. He’ll be all right, he tells the dentist. Just give him a few painkillers and he’ll be on his way.
Jones’ problem is that the dentist, like Jones, is black. Growing up in Truro, Jones had never once met a black dentist. Or doctor. Or lawyer. Black people, he knew, didn’t do those kind of jobs.
He needed a real dentist. A white dentist. He got his painkillers and left.
Soon after, he met and married Joan, an “exceptional” woman, “who directed my reading and made me aware of all sorts of things that were going on.”
Jones himself soon became an activist too. Coming home from work one evening, he happened on a demonstration in front of the U.S. consulate. A group of whites were protesting the denial of voting rights to blacks in the U.S. south. At home that night, he and his wife talked about the fact that “it wasn’t right for whites to stand up and fight for blacks when no blacks were involved.”
They became regulars at the consulate protests where the media soon discovered him. “The press wanted a Canadian Stokely Carmichael.” Thanks to ‘a natural speaking talent — “I discovered I could motivate groups” — Jones soon became an in-demand speaker at civil rights demonstrations in the U.S. and Canada.
By 1965, he and Joan had decided to take his new-found activism home to Nova Scotia, a place he now realized was as racist as any southern U.S. town.
And the rest was/is history. R.I.P., Joan Jones.
It’s not simply that a majority government can dominate legislative committees, there are other less obvious ways in which these committees are hobbled.
Except in the case of Public Accounts Committees, most are chaired by government members. Most chairs being selected by government house leaders who, of course, are guiding by the premier/prime minister.
Committee members are often not assigned, by their parties, for a definite period (e.g. a session) but may be removed or re-assigned according their party’s current strategy. This means that they don’t build a track record or, in some cases, acquire real understanding of the issues that the committees are covering.
Witnesses may be chosen according to the likelihood of their supporting the government’s views. Having expertise in an area does not guarantee that you will be heard.
The ground rules for committees seem to change easily (e.g. the recent experience of N.S.’s new Health Committee), so while reforms often have been adopted, there can be no certainty that committees will be working to the same rules from year to year.
Nor can one be certain that a given committee will consider similar issues from year to year. I’ve often wondered why legislation relating to forest policy is not automatically sent to the Natural Resources Committee and why that committee doesn’t meet regularly even to consider matters such as the periodic ‘State of the Forest’ reports, or the Lahey report, or, for that matter the Biodiversity Bill, which was recently considered by the Law Amendments Committtee..
Sometimes committees will do useful work. Law Amendments has frequently made valuable changes to bills. In Ottawa members of standing committees sometimes do hold their seats for long enough to become thoroughly familiar with the subjects they study and able to make useful changes. But even so, the weight of government control is oppressvie.