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Politics vs. governing

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This is the story causing the most tongues to wag in Ottawa today.

It is sure to be an issue of debate for a while.

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On the one hand it seems ridiculous for the Conservatives to refuse to allow political staff to appear at committees. Political staff are as involved in the day to day workings of any government as bureaucrats and on this particular issue, it is the meddling of political staff into media requests that is in question. Why should Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, get a pass when private citizens such as Rahim Jaffer and Nazim Gillani do not. Sure the latter two could have refused to appear but they did not.

But looking at what has happened through the Conservative lens, it’s not surprising they may want to protect their staff. Even if Conservative House Leader Jay Hill’s speech was somewhat laden with hyperbole, there is at least some truth to his accusation the opposition MPs did not treat the staffers who already appeared with any modicum of respect.

But that is not the exception. That is the norm.

If I were counseling any Canadians asked to appear before a Parliamentary committee I’d be inclined to tell them to stay far far away. Because the MPs in this parliament, no matter the party, have a tendency to treat witnesses not with respect but with partisan derision.

If you are in favour of the gun registry, you can be sure that MPs from the Conservative Party will pepper with questions designed to intimidate, frighten, embarrass or confuse.

If you are in favour of getting rid of the gun registry you can bet the Liberals and Bloc and most NDP MPs will grant you the same treatment.

Time and again I have been astounded at how obviously partisan the MPs are on committees where supposedly the best work of Parliament takes place. These are the places where the government is supposed to study legislation in depth, hear from experts on both sides of an issue and decide whether the legislation in question is valid, effective and needed. They are the place where issues of importance to this country are supposed to be debated without partisan blinders but with a mind open to information that can be provided by people who know the issues intimately.

But time and again, thanks to the free ride handed out by Parliamentary privilege, MPs will treat witnesses as if they are on trial. They will call them liars. They will cut off an answer when it’s not going the way they wanted. It seems they know going into a committee what they think and no matter what any witness has to say, MPs are not going to change their minds.

Conservative House Leader Jay Hill said the opposition has taken its majority to intimidate and harass Conservative political staff. But what about the private citizens, the representatives from various interest groups from across Canada, who have been treated the same way?

There is also an irony here in that the Conservatives are now saying the ministers are responsible and will therefore appear at committees when just a few weeks ago, three ministers, Manitoba regional minister Vic Toews, industry minister Tony Clement and health minister Leona Aglukkaq, refused invitations to appear before the Health Committee to discuss the HIV vaccine initiative and demise of a pilot manufacturing facility.

Politics may be a game but governing this country is not.

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About Mia Rabson

Mia Rabson is a born and bred Winnipegger whose interest in politics seemed clear when she dressed up as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for Halloween in the 7th grade.

Her interest in writing was no surprise to her parents, who learned early in Mia’s life that no piece of blank paper — or wall, for that matter — was safe in her hands.

She holds an honours BA in English from Queen’s University, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario, and has completed a political journalism fellowship in Washington, D.C. with the Washington Centre for Politics and Journalism.

Prior to working for the Winnipeg Free Press, Mia briefly worked for the Detroit News in the paper’s Washington bureau.

Mia joined the Free Press team in February 2001, and in April 2001 was appointed to the Manitoba legislature bureau. In December 2004, she was appointed bureau chief at the legislature. She became the newspaper’s parliamentary bureau chief/national reporter in Ottawa in January 2008.

In 2008 she was nominated for a Michener Award with a team of reporters from the Free Press for its coverage of the province’s child welfare system.

She counts reliving the invasion at Dieppe, France, with veterans of the failed Second World War expedition and overcoming her fear of heights to touch the Golden Boy statue atop the Legislative Building among her favourite experiences as a reporter.

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