Commonwealth Parliamentary Association,
Fifth Canadian Regional Seminar, Toronto, October 15-19, 1979, 217 pp &
appendix 73 pp.
This is a difficult publication to review.
It comprises five background papers and over two hundred pages of transcribed
discussions on the topic of legislative committees. While the focus is fixed
mainly on Canadian experience (and here principally on MPs at Ottawa and MPPs
at Toronto), the experience in other Jurisdictions. especially Great Britain
and the United States, is discussed frequently enough to make the study a work
in comparative legislative behaviour as well.
However, the volume's scope and especially
its manner of presentation detract from the importance the subject deserves.
Quite clearly, as they are discussed here, there are committees and, then
again, there are committees. Those that examine Public Accounts or Statutory
Instruments are vital elements of the parliamentary system but their
experiences, here and abroad, are described as qualitatively different from the
experience of standing and select or special committees. The contrast, of
course, is that while their manner of operation and degree of success in
fulfilling varied terms of reference may differ from legislature to
legislature, their raison d'être is seldom questioned. The same cannot be said
of those other committees whose relationship to the bureaucracy who serve them,
the executive who seeks to direct them, or the political parties who select
their membership is almost constantly in dispute. The participants in these
discussions are unanimously unhappy with the way this latter group of
On the evidence of this volume a verbatim
record of the seminar discussion is a mixed blessing for those who did not
attend the meeting. The sense of immediacy is conveyed well enough but it is
immediacy in the presence of a lengthy and occasionally wandering discourse.
With the exception of the background research papers, the rest of the
discussion is best described, in the words of one participant, as
"fluid". In this context, fluid too often means repetitious, tedious
and aimless. It is for this reason that those sessions of the seminar devoted
to committee work on public accounts or statutory instruments are welcome. As
well, comparisons drawn by visitors from the United Kingdom and the United
States between their experience and what they have heard of Canada prove
memorable. For instance, the British system, which in contrast to Canada has
displayed in recent years less discipline on the part of party leaders and more
independence on the part of Individual members, reminds the reader how
distinctive the Canadian system is despite its institutional similarities to
that of Great Britain.
In his description of how Congressional
committees work, Dr. Walter Kravitz, senior specialist in the Congressional
Research Service, underlines the need to consider the whole of the political
system when studying its parts: "What does all of this have to do with
committees? Everything. The fundamental character of the committee system of
the United States Congress is deliberately fashioned to meet these kinds of
[partisan] circumstances. Because of the constant battle between the President
and the Legislature committees are swung into line as major cannons in the
battle. Committees give the Congress the kind of expertise it must have. I've
heard discussion here about the usefulness of expertise, and how nice it would
be. For the American Congress there is no option. This is an absolute
necessity" (p. 93).
In the remarks by outsiders then there is a
home truth which frequently, seems to be overlooked, or at least
underestimated, by Canadian parliamentarians. The committee system here, just
as in London or Washington, springs out of the roots of our experience ... and
we pay costs. We have benefits, but we pay for everything" (p. 89).
Canadian committees behave the way they do because the executive sits in
Parliament and in the provincial legislatures. As elsewhere, the government
seeks to dominate public life. But here they succeed most of the time because
parliamentary life is infused with partisanism. It is true that some, maybe
much, of the business before committees can be conducted with minimal partisan
rancour but that is not the significant fact. What matters is that when dissent
or disagreement emerges, the partisan whip lies to hand. In Canada, where
distance displaces doctrine, loyalty to the party leader is tested in committee
as well as in caucus. The benefit of this system is confident government; the
cost has become attenuated national parties.
The scattered intervention by legislators
from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, among others reminds the reader that
there is a world of legislative experience outside Toronto and Ottawa. The
comments suggest that it is a very different world. How different remains for
another seminar, or better still, a book to elucidate.
David E. Smith
Department of Political Science
University of Saskatchewan