Secret committee meetings harm Canadian democracy, say critics
Increasing use of in camera, confidential meetings in House committees are muffling meaningful debate and obscuring public access to important information, allege opposition MPs and veteran journalists.
House Committees spent 55 per cent of their time in camera in September, according to figures compiled by Canadian political watchdog blogger The Sixth Estate* as part of his Open Government project, an independent, ongoing project to rival that of the majority Conservative government's initiative of the same name.
The Sixth Estate wrote that his Open Government project's aim is to investigate the allegations from journalists and opposition MPs that the Conservatives are using their majority to force more and more committees to meet in secret, away from journalists and the public, and thus unaccountable for their actions.
"I track how often Parliamentary committees meet in secret, hiding from the public — something which in the present government can only happen when the Prime Minister’s Office wants them to," he wrote.
The political blogger compiled his statistics by going through the meeting minutes on the official Parliament committees website.
Stakes are high for taking motions in camera with FIPPA, upcoming omnibus legislation
On September 26, FIPPA-- the biggest foreign trade agreement since NAFTA -- was tabled in Parliament. Liberal MP Wayne Easter told The Vancouver Observer in an earlier interview that the International Trade Committee killing an opposition MP's motion to study FIPPA was "typical" for the Conservatives when they don't want to engage in a critical debate.
"The problem is with this particular government is they typically go in-camera to defeat a motion," he said.
"We should be doing what Parliament is supposed to do and hold a consultation so that we know just exactly what is happening under the investment agreement, and so that we can look at the implications."
However, the Conservative government claims that it is doing due dilligence in maintaining transparency.
In response to concerns raised by opposition MPs regarding FIPPA, a Minister of International Trade spokesperson wrote to The Vancouver Observer:
"In the name of transparency, our government introduced an unprecedented process for putting international treaties before Parliamentarians in the House of Commons."
Earlier in October, Liberal MP Marc Garneau tabled a motion to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to study the limits on omnibus legislation. It was quietly removed from the agenda after an in camera vote, prompting committee member Nathan Cullen to call the shuttering of debate a "mockery of Parliament."
Harper government "most aggressive in using the in camera provision": veteran politics reporter
Retired political journalist, Carleton journalism professor and author Paul Adams observed that the majority Conservative government has been much more aggressive in using the in camera provision than any at the federal level "in living memory."
"It goes without saying that by holding meetings in camera, it complicates the job of the media in covering the parliamentary and political affairs of the nation, and this deprives the public of access," Adams told The Vancouver Observer.
Adams, who has reported for CBC Television’s The National, CBC Radio and the Globe and Mail, agrees with The Sixth Estate that the majority Conservative government has generally done a poor job of accountability and transparency.
"I won't comment in detail on the government's open access plan except to say that the current government has been among the most closed in the several decades since Access to Information was legislated. There has been more political interference in access requests than in the past."
Standing Committees are permanent committees comprised by elected MPs in the House of Commons to study, debate, and recommend amendments to bills or issues of importance to the Canadian public. In camera hearings are designed "to deal with administrative matters, to consider a draft report or to receive a background briefing," according to the Government of Canada.
Other reasons to go in camera are when topics require confidentiality, such as national security. Depending on the number of items to discuss, MPs on Standing Committees can vote to hold parts of its meetings in public, and parts in camera.
The Sixth Estate was one of the whistleblowers on an erroneous Canadian Press story from May which claimed that the Harper Conservatives were less secretive than the Liberals based on inaccurate data. Though his own calculations showed that Conservative MPs under Stephen Harper still met for only 60 minutes in private every day compared to Liberal MPs under then-majority leader Paul Martin's 70 minutes, on the whole House committees have grown more secretive on a percentage basis.
"25.3 per cent of House committee time is now spent in secret, compared with 22.6% under Martin," The Sixth Estate wrote.
Three "accountability" committees in Parliament most secretive: veteran federal politics and committees reporter
Veteran reporter Tim Naumetz, who has been reporting federal politics since 1984 and Parliamentary Committees for the last ten years, said that the top three "accountability" committees -- the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, and the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates -- are also those that get voted by its majority Conservative membership to go "in-camera" the most frequently.
Naumetz, who currently reports for the Ottawa-based Hill Times, noted that all three were chaired by MPs from the official opposition NDP during the robocalls and F-35 fighter jet scandals.
"From last September onward the opposition has been trying to get those committees to investigate areas which the government did not want to go into," Naumetz told The Vancouver Observer.
"So anytime they brought up a motion to move the beginning of inquiry and call witnesses, the majority would suddenly make a motion to go 'in-camera' and then defeat those motions-- there's no public record of debate or anything, any of the exchanges."
Canadians should care about in camera committee meetings
In general, Naumetz said that all MPs should use the in camera option less, despite the fact that many Canadians don't follow the day-to-day activities of their MPs in Committees closely.
"Parliament in general does too much of its important work in secret, including the Commons committees and the Senate. Some of the important motions in the House dealing with procedure or passing bills even, are done in secret beforehand," he said.
"The governing boards of the Senate and the House hold their meetings in secret, and they deal with important issues, like lawsuits against individual MPs or senators."
He also cited the case of Conservative MP Dean del Mastro, who is under investigation from Elections Canada for an undeclared $21,000 personal cheque he wrote to an Ottawa company that made calls to voters during the 2008 federal election. The House Ethics Committee ultimately decided not to investigate his case.
"The public has a stake in all of this, since Parliament passes federal laws, including criminal and tax law, that affect everyone."