The Harper Conservatives are making a bid to have parliamentary committee business conducted in secret.
Widely considered as a test run for all committees, the Official Languages Committee is currently debating a motion to conduct its future committee business in camera. The motion was originally introduced by Costas Menegakis (Richmond Hill, Ont., CPC). The Government Operations and Estimates Committee has also given notice of a similar motion, sponsored by Mike Wallace (Burlington, Ont., CPC).
Because there is no strict definition of “committee business,” committees generally interpret the term as they see fit. Historically, usual practice has excluded the hearing of witnesses and the clause-by- clause study of bills, but there are no procedural guarantees safeguarding against this.
In the past, in camera (meaning in private from the Latin for in chamber) committee meetings were held in private to deal with certain administrative matters. These include hearing a background briefing, considering a draft report, planning for future business, and dealing with sensitive topics, such as national security, among other things.
“It’s becoming increasingly evident that the Harper Conservatives dislike public accountability,” said Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party. “They are already limiting debate in the House on a regular basis, and now they intend to make committee business secret.
“With their majority muscle, the Conservatives can already pass whatever they want in committees. They are running roughshod over past practice and doing away with any pretence of democracy.”
Prior to the introduction of the above-mentioned motions, the Conservatives had already drastically increased the use of the in camera rule to conduct certain items of business, particularly when opposition members introduced a motion that the Conservatives did not like. Once a committee is in camera, the Minutes record only approved decisions; defeated motions do not appear on the public transcript. Parliamentary privilege also ensures that opposition members cannot speak publicly about in camera sessions.
“What prevented such authoritarian abuse of the in camera rule in the past was governments’ respect for democratic practice,” May added. “The Harper Conservatives are now using these egregious procedural loopholes to effect a system of secrecy and control. Opposition motions disappear in camera and never see the light of day.
“Canadians have a right to know what committees are debating and what positions are being taken. A government that truly cared about accountability would be trying to maximize the ability of the public to be informed about committee business. Making committee business top secret is as bizarre as it is anti-democratic,” said May.