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Separate committees to consider massive omnibus bill: A pyrrhic victory?

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The government will allow the monster, omnibus Budget Implementation Bill, C-45, to be studied by a number of committees, and not exclusively the Finance Committee.

This is not the same thing as splitting C-45 into a number of separate Bills, as the NDP leader Tom Mulcair proposed. He sought unamimous consent, on Wednesday, for a motion to split the bill, but the Conservatives balked. 

Having C-45 heard by a number of different Committees does not mean the ultimate outcome will likely change. 

We have a highly disciplined (controlled?) majority governing party, and the Conservative leadership does not have much tolerance for dissent in its own ranks. 

There is virtually no chance that any Conservative will vote against any aspect of C-45, which is, after all, a confidence bill.

Plus, even in Committee hearings, one can expect a highly focused and orchestrated performance from the Government members. 

Poilievre will face Chow on Transport

Parliamentary Secretaries, who are sort of Ministers’ understudies – normally sit on the Committees that deal with their areas of responsibility. They play a big role in quarterbacking Government members' strategy.  

For instance, the Transport Committee will study a number of the transport-related measures in C-45, including the much contested provision to abolish the venerable Navigable Waters Protection Act. 

Toronto NDP MP Olivia Chow sits on that Committee, and she had suggested earlier this week that it take up Bill C-45. 

But sitting right opposite Chow will be the indefatigable Ottawa Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre. He is the Transport and Infrastructure Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary and he is well-known for his tough and highly partisan approach.

Just last week, in a typical example, when NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice asked a question in the House about illegal election spending by the Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs, Poilievre tried to put Boulerice on the spot by mentioning – as he always does when replying to this particular member – the fact  that the Montreal NDP member had contributed to the left-of-centre Québec Solidaire party:

"That member has donated not once, not twice, but 29 times to the hard-line, separatist Québec Solidaire," Poilievre said, in a typical example of political non-sequitur (the question was about a minister's election spending, after all), "For Canadians to trust and believe in that party, they need to know that party believes in Canada. Would the member confirm if he is now a federalist?"

This time, Boulerice was either very quick on his feet, or had prepared a sharp and effective retort in advance.

"Let me set the record straight," Boulerice said, "I love Canada. I love Quebec and I love Montreal, but above all, I love the people, and I would never let them get sick by eating tainted meat as the Conservatives are doing."

What Committee work should be; what it has become

 If the House of Commons is, inevitably, about theater and grandstanding, committees are supposed to be more serious and diligent. 

Committees study bills clause-by-clause and hear from expert witnesses and citizens who have something to say about proposed legislation.

And all of this very often happens far from the glare of media attention.

The idea is that MPs will let down their partisan masks and make an effort to dispassionately consider all the issues at hand in a fair and open-minded way.

In the past, there was always a degree of partisanship on committees, regardless of the party in power. 

But the current Conservative government seems to have taken that partisanship to new heights. 

Conservatives grandstand while witnesses sit silent

 During hearings last spring on the refugee and immigration reform bill, C-31, many Conservatives seemed more intent on using their allotted questioning time to make rhetorical points than to ask questions -- even tough and adversarial questions -- of the witnesses.

On more than one occasion, Conservative MPs used their entire allotted questioning time to lecture witnesses whom they considered hostile, without leaving a single second for the witnesses to respond.

We'll see what happens with the various committees studying C-45.

Chow no doubt has a good idea of what she can await from Poilievre and some of his more doctrinaire colleagues, such as Toronto MP Mark Adler (who defeated Ken Dryden in the last election). 

Last year, Chow got the Transport Committee to consider her motion calling on the government to establish a national transportation strategy -- hardly a radical, socialist idea, and one without significant cost attached to it.

Throughout the hearings on that motion, a number of Conservative MPs could not resist the temptation to badger and harass witnesses, such as CUPE President Paul Moist, favourable to Chow’s motion,

The Toronto Conservative Mark Adler even had the clever idea of asking Moist whether he has a driver (the answer was "no") and how he had gotten himself to the hearing (the answer: "I walked!")

Is that the level of discourse we can expect during the C-45 hearings? 

The matters at hand are not trivial. They include hazardous waste and the fate of millions of square kilometers of Canadian waterways. 

We'll be keeping track of those proceedings in this space. 

Stay tuned. 


Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Donate to support his efforts todayKarl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House. 

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