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A Canadian flag flies over Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 21, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A Canadian flag flies over Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 21, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NDP calls for study of 'inappropriate' secret sessions Add to ...

The federal New Democrats are trying to ensure that the Conservative government does not push the debate at Commons committees behind closed doors.

Chris Charlton, the NDP Whip, introduced a motion Tuesday at the procedures and House affairs committee calling on the committee to begin a study of the “inappropriate” use of secret sessions at all of the committees where legislation is studied, debated, altered and approved.

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“I think it’s really important that committees stay one of the accountable and transparent parts of Parliamentary process which they have always been,” Ms. Charlton said going in to the committee room.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “I think we have seen that the government members are increasingly anxious to move things in camera so that media can’t have access, Canadians can’t have access, and no one is sure what is happening behind closed doors.”

In fact, the procedures and House affairs committee was conducted in camera on Tuesday as is customary when the matters being discussed relate to the operation of the committee itself rather than an issue that is being studied. So there will be no record of Ms. Charlton’s motion, or any debate that ensued, unless the committee agrees to conduct the study she has requested.

The MPs are not permitted to discuss went on behind closed doors.

But, if there is no further mention of the study, Ms. Charlton’s motion can be presumed to have failed.

The issue of closed committees was first raised in December when it became apparent that the Conservatives were trying to have more of the debate conducted in private.

Conservative MP Mike Wallace, for instance, tried to introduce a motion the government operations committee that would force the public to leave the room whenever the committee is determining such matters as which witnesses to call and what subjects to investigate.

And Conservative MPs on other committees introduced similar motions.

Mr. Wallace explained at that time that witnesses at the government operations committee would still be heard in public.

“But then we go in camera to discuss who we are going to invite next and what study we are going to do, all that kind of stuff,” he explained. “It gives members of Parliament an opportunity to speak frankly about what should be next for the committee to study.”

It also keeps the public from knowing why certain witnesses, or topics of study, have been rejected and which MPs have rejected them.

“For most Canadians, what happens inside committees is sort of insider baseball,” said Ms. Charlton. “But the reality is that when pensions, for example, are being debated in this House, Canadians have a stake in what happens. And by being able to makes submissions to committees, by having the media report out about what’s happening in committees, they are informed about what this government is doing. It’s a critical part of accountability.”

Marc Garneau, a Liberal member of the procedures and House affairs committee, said he agreed with Ms. Charlton.

The Committees should be “as public as we can be,” said Mr. Garneau. “There are a few occasions when it has to be in camera, but, as much as possible, the principle should be that it should not be in camera so the media and the public have maximum access.”

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