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A still from a YouTube video taken at Trudeau airport in Montreal shows veiled women boarding an Air Canada flight for Heathrow.
A still from a YouTube video taken at Trudeau airport in Montreal shows veiled women boarding an Air Canada flight for Heathrow.

Committee Hijinx

Commons hearing on airline security <br/>descends into farce Add to ...

There are days when Parliament operates as though it's run by fair-minded adults. More frequently, it resembles a dysfunctional grudge match between opposing factions.

Tuesday was one of those days.

The short version is that opposition MPs killed an attempt by the Conservatives to study the screening of veiled passengers at airports.

This followed 45 minutes of partisan bickering between the Tories and opposition parties that began with a seemingly deliberate Conservative ploy to box the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois into a corner.

"They thought they could, through procedural tricks, maintain a vote advantage where they would force ... hearings where they would talk about how scary Muslims are," Liberal MP Mark Holland charged.

Tories, however, say the Liberals and other opposition parties are willfully ignoring security problems at Canada's airports.

"There are people boarding planes right now in Canada with their faces covered. Is that not an issue of security that is important today?" Conservative MP Brian Jean said.

Here's the long version:

Stephen Harper's Conservatives called a mid-summer meeting of the Commons public security committee because they want to trigger a study on the screening of veiled airline passengers. The move was spurred by a Sun Media story that featured a YouTube video of two Muslim women, their faces covered, boarding an Air Canada flight out of Montreal.

Oddly enough, however, the Tory chair of the committee, Garry Breitkreuz, failed to show up for Tuesday's meeting. It's puzzling and highly suspect because the Conservatives themselves called the meeting and yet they didn't forewarn opposition MPs their chair would be absent.

Everything that follows revolves around the mathematics of winning votes in minority government committees.

Normally, a Conservative chairs Commons committees. This means the opposition parties enjoy a built-in advantage over the Tories when it comes to votes at committee.

As long as there's a Tory in the chair - who doesn't vote except in the event of a tie - the other five Conservative MPs will find themselves outnumbered in committee votes. They're beaten every time if the six opposition MPs - three Liberals, two Bloc and one NDP - join forces to vote as one.

So with Mr. Breitkreuz a no-show Tuesday, the Tories began urging Mr. Holland, the Liberal committee vice-chairman, to take over the position.

This of course would mean Mr. Holland could no longer cast a vote except in a tie. And it would mean the five Tories could beat the four other opposition MPs in any subsequent votes. Including on the question of whether to call witnesses on whether veiled air passengers are being properly screened.

Mr. Holland balked, saying he'd only chair if the Tories dumped one of their attending MPs to keep the committee math in balance. The Conservatives taunted him, saying he should consider returning the $5,000 extra he's paid to serve as vice-chairman.

"Does this mean you're going to give back the money that Canadians pay you to be the vice-chair," Mr. Jean asked Mr. Holland. "I'm just kind of curious."

The Tories eventually relented and installed Conservative MP Phil McColeman as chair, a move that left the opposition majority vote count intact.

Liberal MP Joe Volpe immediately raised a point of order, protesting the proposed avenue of study on the grounds it would duplicate what was being done at the Transport committee.

Mr. McColeman wasn't having any of this and ruled against Mr. Volpe's point of order.

But the six opposition MPs voted not to sustain his order, which meant that Mr. Volpe's point of order was accepted and the Tory request for study found out of order. (Thanks to CBC journalist Kady O'Malley for her procedural expertise in decoding what transpired.)

His order rejected, Mr. McColeman quit the chairmanship, leaving the committee briefly chair-less until Mr. Holland took over.

The Liberal MP tried to switch the subject to a study of policing at the riot-marred G20 summit in Toronto. The Tories refused to give unanimous consent for a change of topic and the committee ended up folding its tent.

Conservative MP Shelly Glover, a committee member who called the meeting, declined repeated requests to divulge how many Canadians urged her to study this issue. "I've never asked for a special meeting outside of this," Ms. Glover said.

"If a single Canadian is worried about their safety and security, it's my job as a member of the public safety and national security committee to address it."

She couldn't explain why Mr. Breitkreuz didn't show up to chair the meeting.

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