The Conservative government dispatched three cabinet ministers to the first meeting of the committee reviewing the environmental legislation contained in a massive budget bill – a brief and surprise appearance that left little opportunity for questions by opposition MPs.
Environment Minister Peter Kent, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver all showed up early Thursday morning at the first meeting of the Commons sub-committee tasked with studying the effects of the legislation, Bill C-38, on environmental assessment and natural resources.
Opposition members say they were not told until late Wednesday evening about the intention of the ministers to appear. The notice of their appearance, which would normally have been posted in advance on the parliamentary website, was not updated to say they were coming until they were in the committee room.
And by the time each of the ministers had finished reading lengthy statements repeating many of the same talking points the government has been making in the House, there was just over a half hour left for questions from committee members.
That spared each of the ministers from having to spend a full hour – as is usually the case when they appear before Commons committees – defending, by themselves, the portions of the bill that fall within their portfolios.
"I think this is a government that is very concerned about the growing public reaction to the bill and they want to stifle dissent in every possible way," said NDP MP Peter Julian, one of the opposition members on the committee.
By the time Conservatives MPs on the committee had finished asking their own questions, the opposition was left with less than 20 minutes to grill the ministers about "dozens and dozens" of pages of legislation, he said.
"They are going to give lip service to some transparency and accountability," Mr. Julian said of the Conservative government, "but they are really trying to shut down the process and ram through a bill that has profound negative impacts on the environment and a whole range of other activities."
The 425-page legislation rewrites about 70 laws. Among other things, it would dramatically overhaul environmental assessments, alter the administration of parks, revise immigration rules, make it more difficult to refuse work while collecting Employment Insurance, increase the age of eligibility for Old Age Security, and change the laws concerning assisted human reproduction. It is currently being studied by the Commons finance committee.
Opposition MPs had demanded the bill be broken down into several parts and studied by a number of committees. But the government would agree only to allow the sub-committee of the finance committee to take a closer look at the environmental ramifications.
"I have been in Parliament for eight years and I have never seen this happen, where they would throw three ministers in, give less than 20 minutes to the opposition to question, and pretend in some way that they have satisfied the due diligence," Mr. Julian said.
A spokesman for Mr. Kent said after the meeting the minister had announced on Tuesday his intention to appear before the committee at some point and that it is standard practice for ministers to attend the first meeting.
"This is the first day of the sub-committee meeting and they decided to call ministers and officials from three departments to begin the consideration of C-38 and we're delighted, on relatively short notice, to comply," Mr. Kent told The Globe. "And if the sub-committee decides to call us again, I would be delighted to come."
When asked when he first learned that he would be appearing at the sub-committee, Mr. Ashfield replied: "I think it was the day before yesterday." His aide interjected to say he was not sure. "I'm not sure," the minister added.
Mr. Oliver said he thought it was advantageous to have three ministers at the committee at the same time. "They can provide a comprehensive view of all aspects of the bill," he said, "and people have the opportunity to ask us about any of those aspects."