Parliament becoming OK Corral – Another show down looms – View From the Hill by Keith Beardsley – May 26, 2010

Cornwall ON – The recent announcement by Jay Hill, the Government House Leader, that ministerial staffers will no longer appear before committees, opens up a Pandora’s Box of potential issues.

The first issue of course is who is supreme? Is it Parliament as represented by its MPs on committees or is it the Prime Minister’s Office? Make no doubt about it, if they didn’t dream this policy up, PMO would have to sign off on this one.

Milliken’s ruling on the detainee documents would support the supremacy of Parliament. Committees have traditionally been masters of their own destiny and called whoever they wished to testify. Taking away that right is a huge issue.

If ministers are now to take full responsibility for their staffs and departments then every single mistake will now land on their doorstep. True responsible government would see minister’s take full responsibility for everything in their department. Are they only taking responsibility for their office or for the entire department? It was Jay Hill who said ““Ministers are individually and collectively responsible to the House of Commons for the policies, programs and activities of the Government.” So which is it?

If Dimitri Soudas is called as a witness and under these guidelines refuses to appear, his minister is the Prime Minister. Soudas reports to the PM, not John Baird or anyone else other than Guy Giorno. This would mean the PM is now responsible for appearing and representing some 100 plus staff. That’s insane.

If as happens recently Baird shows up instead of the PM, does this mean that PMO can pick whomever they want to show up at committee on behalf of a staffer. It flies against the very principles of the new decision on ministerial responsibility.

What about the individual staffer who has been accused rightly or wrongly by committee members? Do they not have the right to defend themselves? Under this system the answer would be no. Your proxy would have to defend you. If you were a staffer, wouldn’t that make you all warm and fuzzy?

Committees have several rarely used powers such as the right to subpoena individuals. If a staffer is subpoenaed, they are placed in greater jeopardy than if they simply went and got it over with.

What happens to former staff if issues are uncovered years later? Are they protected by the minister of the day who could even be from a different party? Or is this just a convenience for current staff? Who will be paying the legal bills of past and present staff subpoenaed by a committee?

Committees also have a responsibility to the people of Canada. When they become so partisan that they cease to work effectively, they are doing the country a disservice. It’s interesting to note that two of the worse examples of extreme partisanship have been at the Ethics Committee chaired by Paul Szabo. The Mulroney-Schreiber hears were one of the worse cases seen to date. As Chair Szabo went way overboard in supporting Schreiber to the point where any sense of balance went out the window and it began to look like a kangaroo court. That charade cost the taxpayers at least two million dollars for Mulroney’s legal fees and nightly newscasts of the daily goings on certainly helped lower public confidence in committee work.

Committees certainly have the right to investigate issues that they deem important, and so they should. But when they become too partisan, they become dysfunctional and then they serve little purpose other than to give the media some good clips and quotes. As Chair, Szabo can rule on the types of questions, their focus and maintain decorum if he so chooses. One can certainly question Szabo’s will or maybe it’s ability, to do so. Jay Hill was right when he referred to hostile committees.

By the time his latest investigation finishes getting legal opinions; subpoenaing individuals etc, how many more millions will this cost the taxpayer yet again?  As Chair Szabo has a responsibility to the public and to the whole committee, not just to his partisans and other opposition MPs.  Politically, the Liberals should be careful what they seek now and try to enforce now, as one day they may be on the receiving end.

And so another showdown looms. What is the bet that this also goes to the Speaker for another ruling. Meanwhile Canadians look away in disgust at all the goings on and politicians wring their hands and wonder why voters have given up on Parliament.

Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails.

please visit our sponsors:


  1. Power without responsibility—the Harper signature, and another black eye for democracy.

  2. I like Keith’s writings. Good job Keith.

Leave a Reply