Public scrutiny of Parliament imperilled

Meetings move behind closed doors


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OTTAWA -- Treasury Board Minister Tony Clement last week held a novel town hall meeting on Twitter.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/12/2011 (4185 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Treasury Board Minister Tony Clement last week held a novel town hall meeting on Twitter.

For 45 minutes in English and 45 minutes in French, he chatted about his department’s Open Government initiative with anyone with a Twitter account and knowledge of how hashtags work.

Open Government was launched last March to make Ottawa more open and transparent by making documents easier to get and read, and by allowing citizens more opportunities to engage with the government and participate in decision-making.

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press MP Justin Trudeau apologizes for swearing in the House of Commons.

The idea of Open Government is a noble pursuit.

But it would be more noble if it were actually truly being pursued.

There was a certain irony to the event coming at the end of a week in which government members of House of Commons committees several times had pushed debate behind closed doors.

Two days prior to the Twitter town hall, Conservative MP Mike Wallace tried to get a motion through that would see all future business of the government operations committee go in camera.

This is one of the most important committees in Parliament. It looks at all government operations and examines spending estimates reports in detail.

To push all the discussions except witness testimony out of the public eye is to allow MPs a free ride and reduce the kind of scrutiny good government requires.

Wallace’s motion was postponed on a technicality but it will resurface.

And it’s not the only one of its kind.

Also on Tuesday, Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett wanted a debate on her motion before the aboriginal affairs committee to hold two emergency meetings to discuss the housing crisis on reserves. The Conservatives on the committee forced the debate on the motion behind closed doors.

That same day, a motion to go in camera was also introduced at the official languages committee.

Apparently, open and accountable government means Canadians don’t get to see or hear what their elected officials think about whether it is worthwhile to debate the housing crisis on reserves. There likely are legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate. We wouldn’t know because the debate took place in camera.

The trend to have more and more committee business conducted out of earshot of anyone but members of the committee is something that should concern all Canadians.

When government doesn’t operate out in the open, there is no accountability.

When there is no accountability, democracy is harder to achieve.

The main way to get any government to be more open is for Canadians to care about it.

That seems harder and harder to do.

Substantive issues that should be debated by the public are sidelined by bumper-sticker politics and the need to summarize happenings in 140-character tweets.

Individuals are more riveted by reality television and celebrity gossip than government policy.

The media are equally to blame for the problem. Question period is normally derided as boring and ineffectual. That is until the son of a former prime minister boils over when a minister says something ridiculous. (In this instance, Environment Minister Peter Kent accused the opposition MPs of not attending the environment conference in South Africa, when he himself had refused to grant them permission to attend.) All of a sudden the interest in question period shot up 1,000 per cent Dec. 14, and the radio and television talk shows went into overdrive.

Simply because Justin Trudeau cursed in public.

One of the most-read and most-commented-on political stories on the Free Press web page in November was one detailing MP Pat Martin’s F-sharp outburst on Twitter.

Not that his behaviour or outburst should be condoned, but in the grand scheme of things, is an MP’s bad language more important than an open debate about the government’s spending plans?

The government argues committees must go in camera so the opposition can’t use them to embarrass the government or stall legislation.

It’s true, opposition MPs shouldn’t use committees as weapons of political destruction, any more than majority governments should treat them as a nuisance requirement forcing legislation to take a longer path to enactment.

It has long been said the introduction of the video camera was the beginning of the demise of decorum in the House of Commons. But what does it say about the people we elect that they think they can only accomplish something if nobody is watching them?

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