Let MPs elect Committee Chairs: a step toward democratic reform!

Ted Hsu
Comments Off on Let MPs elect Committee Chairs: a step toward democratic reform!

I was pleased to be the first MP to co-sponsor my colleague MP Brad Trost’s private member’s motion (M-431), which called on the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to review the way that committee chairs are elected. On paper, committees elect their own chairs. But in practice, chairs are currently pre-designated by the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition (some committees, such as Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, must have a member of the official opposition as chair).


Trost’s motion called on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee to propose the ways that committee chairs could be elected by preferential ballot system by all members of the House of Commons (hence a secret ballot), at the beginning of each session, before the membership of the committees is determined, and independently of the party leadership. The Speaker of the House of Commons is elected in this way.


Committees have important responsibilities. For example, they should go through legislation in detail and propose amendments that are sent back to the House for review. They are also responsible for reviewing the government’s spending and subjecting the Minister to questioning. I’ve already written about the importance of committees and the ways that they are vulnerable to procedural hijinks.


Most importantly, Committees MUST be independent of government ministers because their function is to hold the government to account. I think that having all Members of Parliament elect committee chairs in a secret ballot will make committee more independent, and improve transparency and democracy in the House of Commons. That is why I was proud to second motion 431 and speak in support of the motion in the House of Commons.


Recently, the Canadian Parliamentary Review published a summary of the cross-party support for the motion, including my speech in the House of Commons. Here’s a transcript of the speech:


Today I am pleased to speak to Motion No. 431, moved by my hon. colleague from Saskatoon—Humboldt, which is intended to “consider the election of committee chairs by means of a preferential ballot system by all the Members of the House of Commons” similar to that recently implemented at Westminster, and to allow for proposals to adopt similar changes in this House.
I would like to begin by saying that I feel a bit uneasy when I am introduced at riding events as the Liberal member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands. I have chosen the Liberal Party, because I believe that a Liberal government is what is best for the country. However, my duty is to represent my constituents in Kingston and the Islands here in the House as well as to say and do what is best for the country. I am their member of Parliament. I am not simply the Liberal Party’s presence in Kingston and the Islands.


I tell people that we in the House, from all parties, are here to keep tabs on the government of the day. Every well-functioning democracy has a division of powers and checks on the power of any one person or branch. As a legislature, we are supposed to check the power of the executive branch, even as ministers of the Crown are drawn from our ranks. Committees of the House of Commons are critical tools of this legislature. If we presume to hold the executive to account, we must have a functioning independent committee system that merits the public’s trust and confidence.


The Standing Orders tell us that committee chairs are elected by secret ballot from among the members of the committee, but the Standing Orders do not fully reveal reality. The current reality is that committee activities are often directed by the executive branch of government, and a parliamentary secretary for a minister of the Crown often sits on the committee and guides its work. That work includes going to great lengths to protect the government of the day when, for example, committee meetings are taken in camera to protect the government from embarrassment. This is over a decade after the member for Calgary Southwest said, ”Standing committees of the House should not simply be extensions of the Prime Minister’s Office”.
Committees are not as independent as they could be, but then, committee membership and committee chairs are determined by the executive branch or by the leadership of opposition parties, who, to be fair, may be thought of as executive branches in waiting. Much of what happens in the House is determined by the leadership of political parties. They may have what they believe to be the best interests of the country at heart, but we have been elected not only to say and do what is best for the country, and that is why we support our political parties and work as a team here in Ottawa, but to represent our constituents. Therefore, Parliament and its committees must be more than fields of battle between political parties.


Fortunately, there are those who see that the balance of power has moved too much in favour of the party leadership for the good of Canadian democracy. I believe that the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt is one. I am one. Another one is the leader of the Liberal Party, the member for Papineau, who has talked about loosening the grip of the Prime Minister’s Office on Parliament. He said “…we will…strengthen the committee system,…we will strengthen the role of committee chairs and create a more robust system of oversight and review for members from all parties…”.


The election of committee chairs by a preferential ballot, by a ballot that would be a secret ballot, according to the statements by the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt, would have the potential to make the chairs and their committees more independent of the government of the day and more effective.


I acknowledge the caveats that have been raised by colleagues speaking to this motion in the last session of Parliament and today, and that is the requirement that certain chairs be filled by members of the official opposition, the need for the preferential ballots to be secret, the risk of gender and regional imbalances and the need for the study by the committee to address these concerns.


I do not claim to know the full implications of the idea that we are talking about today nor to what extent it would nudge the balance of power in the House back toward elected members of Parliament, but it is a good step to consider.


I do not claim to know the best manner by which a modification of the Standing Orders could implement this idea, but I trust hon. members who serve on the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs will make their best efforts to find it. That is and should be how our committees support our work in the House.


I therefore support Motion No. 431 and thank my hon. colleague from Saskatoon—Humboldt for his initiative. I hope it will lead to a continual effort to improve how Parliament works to serve Canada.