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Secret committee meetings harm Canadian democracy, say critics

NDP MP Nathan Cullen, a member of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, called the killing of Liberal MP Marc Garneau's motion to study the limits of omnibus bills in the committee a "mockery of Parliament." Photo by David P. Ball (

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."

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