Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Perspectives on the Election of Committee Chairs

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Perspectives on the Election of Committee Chairs

Article excerpt

The following is a revised and abridged version of the October 21, 2013 debate on MP Brad Trost's private member's motion (Motion No. 431) which proposes to instruct the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to: (a) consider the election of committee chairs by means of a preferential ballot system by all the members of House of Commons, at the beginning of each session and prior to the establishment of the membership of the standing committees; (b) study the practices of other Westminster-style Parliaments in relation to the election of Committee Chairs; (c) propose any necessary modifications to the Standing Orders and practices of the House; and (d) report its findings to the House no later than six months following the adoption of this order.

Brad Trost (Saskatoon--Humboldt, CPC):

The idea behind this motion comes from two sources. The first, and probably the most relevant to this place, is the debate that was held in 2002 on an opposition supply day. There were members of the Liberal government caucus, the Canadian Alliance, the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP, who worked together to get a motion through. The motion at that time was about the election of committee chairs directly by their committees. Peter McKay, the member for Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough, said at the time: "An independently elected chair ... would demystify and give greater credibility to the process. What we are talking about is not the election of opposition members to fill those important positions of chair, but government members." Dick Procter, the member for Palliser, noted: "Frankly we make it far too easy for the media to cover politics in a very partisan fashion. There is a high angle shot which highlights, maybe even exaggerates, the neutral zone between the government side and the opposition side." That was the general tone of the debate that day. These were members getting together and talking about ways to enhance the credibility of committee chairmanships, their powers and election.

The second inspiration for this motion is what is known as the Wright report, a report by the British House of Commons. Several years ago, Great Britain began to look at a considerable number of reforms to make its House of Commons work. One of them, among other things, was to look at the election of committee chairs. In the last year it has looked at and revised the changes that were implemented by the Wright report, and by and large it has come to a very positive conclusion. It seems to be working, and it seems to be very substantive.

There were several different positive results from this change. First, there is the perception of independence and impartiality. We are in a unique business in politics. Reality is not always reality in politics; perception is reality. If we take steps to democratize and bring forward more independence, and more perception of independence, we enhance the reality of democracy. That is not to imply any sort of criticism to current chairs--by and large, in my nine-plus years in the House of Commons I have dealt with excellent committee chairs. Second, members are more likely to be engaged. One of the areas where we do get engaged as members of Parliament, in a very deep and substantive way, is at our committees. We often do not have the time to become an expert on all aspects of debate here in the House. As members take responsibility at committees, through election, engagement and increasing independence, members will be more engaged and able to act.

This motion would not change who would be eligible to run for the chair of a committee. In a situation with a minority Parliament, opposition members would not choose from their ranks to fill the committee chairs that are normally filled by the government. Some honourable members have asked why this motion does not also apply to vice-chairs. On principle that would be a very good step; however, this would complicate this motion and reduce its odds of being accepted and I, as a government member, do not want to send the message that I am imposing such a procedure on the opposition. …

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