Secret committee meetings harm Canadian democracy, say critics

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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.

Naumetz pointed out that the Board of Internal Economy (more commonly known as the House governing board) -- a committee chaired by the Speaker and with House leaders from each party and the whips -- always meets in secret.

"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." 


(*Editors' Note: The Sixth Estate chooses to remain anonymous for reasons that he cites in full here. A full spreadsheet of his calculations so far can be downloaded here.)

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