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Jane Taber

Conservatives lay groundwork <br/>to vet potential political land mines Add to ...

In the small world that is Canadian politics, Rick Dykstra finds himself working closely again with John Baird.

In 1999, Mr. Dykstra, now the Conservative MP for St. Catharines, served as chief of staff for Mr. Baird, then Ontario's minister of community and social services.

This fall the two begin another partnership. Mr. Baird, the new and powerful Government House Leader, along with Mr. Dykstra, will oversee the startup and initial operation of 26 new Tory caucus advisory committees.

These permanent committees have a mandate to provide a new layer of troubleshooting for the Harper Tories. After the bad Tory summer, a season dominated by the long-form census debacle and slumping national opinion polls, the government clearly needs this.

"This adds checks and balances to the process," says Mr. Dykstra.

It is the job of these committees to flag potential policy land mines to cabinet, catch issues that may fly in Ontario but won't play well in Western Canada, help with communications strategy and reduce the dependence on ministers receiving advice from bureaucrats, who are sitting in Ottawa.

"It frustrates the bureaucracy the amount of input the Prime Minister seeks from his caucus," notes Mr. Dykstra.

While it may upset bureaucrats, hearing voices from outside of the Ottawa bubble is important. Mr. Dkystra and his colleagues believe an MP, living in his or her own community, is better placed than a policy analyst to throw up a red flag if an issue is of sensitivity to constituents.

There was a view, too, that caucus members were blindsided on issues - cabinet approval would be given before MPs had a whiff of what was to come. It made it hard for individual MPs to defend government policy.

The new structure is to avoid that as well as silence any complaints from caucus members.

A busy caucus is a happy caucus and also a united one - ask Stéphane Dion about that.

Stephen Harper came up with this plan - he is re-imagining structures and procedures after having governed for nearly five years in a tricky and stressful minority position.

And so far so good. He's been successful at keeping his caucus critics quiet, although on Friday an "anonymous" western Tory MP popped up in a media report, expressing concerns of western alienation if the federal government gives funds to a proposal to build an NHL arena in Quebec City.

This is one of the first cracks in the Harper caucus but nothing new for Liberal MPs, who have long complained (anonymously) about their leaders.

Mr. Harper, meanwhile, asked several of his senior caucus members - Mr. Dykstra, who had previously worked with the Mike Harris caucus; Marjory LeBreton, the leader of the Government in the Senate; and former House leader Jay Hill - to work on the initiative. (Mr. Baird, now in his new role, is taking over where Mr. Hill left off.)

They had several months to develop the committee structure and assign MPs and senators to committees. The new plan was unveiled at the Conservatives' national caucus retreat held on Parliament Hill earlier this summer.

The committees are comprised of three senators and six MPs. The parliamentary secretary from each ministry serves as the committee chair.

Proposed legislation, regulations or even ideas are to go through the committees - for example, issues such as scrapping the mandatory long-form census could be examined by an advisory committee. Had that happened, the outrage among Canadians may have been anticipated.

The Prime Minister, meanwhile, is insisting that ministers produce documentation, including the committee's recommendations, before legislation is even considered by cabinet.

While there is no formal schedule, it is expected the committees will meet weekly - more so, if their minister has a busy legislative agenda.

As for the Dykstra/Baird team: "Baird never lets me out of his sight. I'm his good-luck charm," jokes Mr. Dykstra.

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