Toronto Sun

August 5, 2001

Rebellion on a tight leash

The Liberals' control over the House has grown to such an extent that Chretien can allow dissent in parliamentary committees

By DOUGLAS FISHER -- Sun Ottawa Bureau
Toronto Sun

The Liberal caucus has some restless souls. Perhaps it's from not having a concerted opposition around. Or maybe their own leadership "race" is too glacially slow to draw their input.

The restless Grits, at least in my opinion, tend to have real talent and they also know cabinet posts for them are unlikely. Aware that idle hands can be the devil's playground, the omniscient one, Jean Chretien, is letting some of those worthies take on his own government.

Where? How? They do so primarily via parliamentary and caucus committees. The former, composed of Liberal and opposition MPs, are theoretically accountable only to themselves and to Parliament. They set most of their own rules, agendas, schedules and witness lists, write their own reports and, most importantly, pick their own chairs. The reality, however, is not as bold and useful as it seems.

With a majority on each committee, the Liberals effectively choose the chair, and thanks to discipline exercised through the party whip, supervised by the Liberal House leader, and overseen by a careful PM, each chair is vetted by Chretien. In action, the chair is usually counselled by the cabinet minister whose department is involved with the themes or programs set for examination. (The finance committee is the exception; its chair must be an opposition MP.)

Given Chretien's quite noticeable sensitivity to criticism in his domain, the chairs of committees are rarely "loose cannons" or gadflies. So much prudence produces insipid proceedings and dull reports. Some Liberal MPs have asked, and some have received, permission to form caucus (i.e., all Liberal) committees to explore issues. Chretien likes investigative efforts in which criticism of the government is non-partisan by definition. Caucus committees can also be controlled more subtly than parliamentary ones, where consistent rebuffing of opposition members causes an angry fuss. These caucus initiatives are usually financed by funds channelled out of a ministerial, rather than the parliamentary, purse.

EXTRAORDINARY EXCHANGE

One has to concede that not all parliamentary committees have been emasculated. Last month saw an extraordinary exchange between the co-chairs of the joint House-Senate committee which reviewed the Divorce Act in 1998. Sen. Anne Cools and MP Roger Gallaway were pitted against the Justice Department bureaucracy and its minister, Anne McLellan.

Cools, an immigrant and a radical of the 1960s, and Gallaway, a talkative, open critic of the Justice Department, wrote a series of letters to the National Post expressing outrage at the contempt shown their committee, its report, and parliamentary democracy itself by the "haughty" McLellan and her mandarins.

It all began back in 1999 when the minister decided not to act on the committee's recommendations, which called for "shared parenting" (i.e., joint custody) as the best way to meet the emotional and financial needs of children, or respond to concerns regarding access issues. She asked her department to do more studies and consultations.

To the senator and the MP, the delay and the "consultations" were part of an effort to generate different "evidence" on what Canadians want the law to be, so that more feminist-friendly proposals can be brought forward by the Justice Department. Fuelling their suspicions is the fact the department's consultations were effectively closed to the public. If any participant objected to the media attending, the latter were banned. This is in contrast to the joint committee's hearings, which were open.

(As an aside, for over a decade any talk among regulars on the Hill which I've heard about the competence and shrewdness of advice tendered ministers within federal departments almost always ends with an unflattering focus on Justice. The explanation? Justice is too mission-driven by feminist lawyers.)

When a Justice Department official responded to the co-chairs' criticisms with a letter to the editor defending both the minister and the process she launched, Cools and Gallaway replied that her letter proved their point -- it was essentially political, and showed civil servants are creating public policy, which is properly the job of politicians.

This attack smoked out the minister, who wrote her own letter to the editor insisting that she was in charge of the process, and that the department's recommendations would be brought before Parliament in due course for debate, possible amendment and approval. Hence there was no breakdown in democracy at all.

Oh, how McLellan revels in the phrase "in due course."

Cools and Gallaway flayed the minister for replying to their concerns in a newspaper. She should explain herself to her caucus colleagues and fellow MPs face to face. Moreover, her implication that the delay in bringing forward legislation was due to the need to discuss the matter with the provinces was dishonest -- the committee's proposals pertained to the Divorce Act, a federal responsibility.

Why would Jean Chretien allow such a scene? Well, note that neither Cools nor Gallaway attacked him, even though he appointed McLellan. Such testing of a minister (whose reputation has been descending as her condescension has been rising) is not a threat to the government at this time. It may even prompt McLellan to get on the ball. Certainly, the media have enjoyed the diversion of the mighty being bitten by the lowly.

Another apparent challenge to the government comes from the review of the Access to Information Act headed by Liberal MP John Bryden. It is not being done by a constituted House committee but by interested MPs who are pooling resources to review it.

Bryden, an assiduous, quirky, self-starting MP, has often deplored government secrecy. He fears that a panel of bureaucrats (most from the central agencies which he and the information commissioner believe are the chief perpetuators of secrecy within government) now reviewing the act for the PM are likely to seek to tighten rather than loosen controls.

ODD IDEA

Should Chretien worry about Bryden and company? No. By letting them go forward, the PM appears statesmanlike. In the end he can pick the odd idea from their report to add to the recommendations of his bureaucrats, and claim he's been as fair as possible. As with Cools and Gallaway, don't expect Bryden to openly finger the PM. (Recently it was disclosed that Chretien played a role in the torpedoing of a private member's bill brought in last year by Bryden to amend the Access to Information Act. When Bryden learned of this intervention by the PM he was remarkably nonchalant. He knows the rules of Liberal conduct.)

Far from being a true challenge to the prime minister -- or to the way government is run -- these efforts are simply more witness to his dominance. Not content with his own job, he can do Stockwell Day's too.


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Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership.