Over the past year, I have watched an unhealthy amount of House of Commons and Senate committee hearings. In fact, in recent months I may have watched more of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage than Netflix, given hearings on Bill C-11, C-18, and the Laith Marouf issue. Having watched many hours – and appeared multiple times before that committee and others – it is time to declare the system broken. I’m not sure I have answers, but the starting point may be recognizing that Canadians are not being well served and there is plenty of blame to go around for all parties.
The impetus for this post is Friday’s hearing on the Laith Marouf incident. The problems started even before the hearing as the committee voted against asking Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez to appear as part of the study, with some MPs saying they would take a wait-and-see approach. But if government is to be accountable for the disastrous failure for using an anti-hate program to fund an anti-semite, committee testimony should not be something to avoid.
The hearing itself was a huge disappointment. Minister Ahmed Hussen was evasive, wasted time whenever possible (can we take it as a given that he appreciates each question?), and had few answers on hard questions about why it took a month for him to say anything about the situation. Meanwhile, departmental officials were never even given an opportunity to testify as a motion from Conservative MP Rachael Thomas to ask Rodriguez to appear before the committee filled the entire second hour. That too was a huge disappointment: putting forward the motion was appropriate. But spending an hour debating it was not. The government MPs might have still voted against it – politics over accountability – but the Conservatives could have still tried to expand the witness list, made their point, and left time for questions to officials.
The rest of the hearing was business as usual for this committee. Chair Hedy Fry again participated via video and had little idea who was speaking or what was happening in the room. MPs from all parties took shots at each other with lines of questioning typically designed to either embarrass or support the Minister, depending on who was doing the questioning. In my view, claiming anti-semitism is a top priority but then reverting to references to hashtags in Pierre Poilievre videos or effectively delaying the chance to question department officials suggests the opposite. The goal is too often to score political points or run out the clock, rather than actually engage, investigate, or develop better policy.
Contrast that with the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications that has been conducting hearings into Bill C-11. There are some politics there too – some Senators are pretty clearly supportive of the bill, others opposed, and still others on the fence – but the hearings seemingly always place policy above politics. Senators ask real questions in an effort to learn, rarely ignore witnesses, and don’t try to kill time. I don’t know if we will see a better outcome from those hearings, but it can hardly be worse than the House committee that cut off debate and voted on over a hundred amendments without any discussion or public disclosure of the content of the proposed amendments.
I don’t have any obvious solutions. The reality is probably that unless Ministers prioritize accountability and MPs show some independence, nothing will change. But as Michael Coteau stated today, “this is why people today are so turned away from politics.” He’s right and it should be in everyone’s interest to do something about it.