The Standing Committees in federal and provincial legislatures have oversight responsibilities for the departments for which they are responsible. For example, the Canadian Federal government’s web site states the committees are empowered to study and report on all matters relating to the mandate, management, and operation of the departments for which they have oversight responsibilities. A Standing Committee may also study matters the Committee itself chooses to examine. It holds public meetings and considers evidence from witnesses. Further, according to Davidson “The extensive powers which a parliamentary committee enjoys are not commonly understood and therefore, at times, not properly respected”. The author goes on to describe these powers as “ --- virtually unlimited powers to compel the attendance of witnesses and to order the production of documents”. A witness so compelled must answer any questions asked by members and produce the required documents. (Source: “The Powers of Parliamentary Committees”. Canadian Parliamentary Review, Vol. 18 no 1, 1995).
The purpose of a whistleblower going to a Standing Committee is to get the wrongdoing that sparked the whistleblowing addressed if internal whistleblowing does not work or even sparks reprisals which is also wrongdoing. If a Standing Committee- the mechanism that is supposed to ensure that the organization is functioning as it should i.e. is not engaging in wrongdoing - dismisses a whistleblower with evidence of wrongdoing, then it would likely discourage whistleblowers from coming forward as they see that nothing will get done. This, in addition to reprisals, is one of the top reasons whistleblowers do not come forward.
A number of whistle-blower cases have laid bare the problematic functioning of these committees when controversial matters arise:
- the 1996 case of whistleblowing at Health Canada when Dr. Michele Brill-Edwards, at one time the most senior medical regulator in the Department, resigned so she could speak publicly about a flawed approval process on the safety of prescription drugs before allowing them on the market. In this case the Standing Committee on Health requested her appearance in 1998 and requested a detailed briefing on an urgent basis when the whistleblower alleged senior bureaucrats from Health Canada had lied to them the week before. The information was submitted, the committee deliberated in-camera, and it is not apparent that any open, impartial investigation ever took place. This meant that a drug acknowledged as unsafe by the evidence and expert advisors remained on the market.
- the 2012 case of Edgar Schmidt, a Justice Canada lawyer who publicly alleged the Minister of Justice was not vetting government legislation for Charter compliance before tabling the legislation, as required by statute. Brent Rathgeber, former Conservative and then Independent Member of Parliament, documents the “chaos and ruckus” that ensued when he did not follow “instructions” to vote down a motion by an NDP member of the Justice committee. The member moved that the committee study the whistleblowers allegation, but Rathgeber rather than kill the idea entirely made a different suggestion. He asked for a delay of the vote for forty hours so he could do his own research to allow for a “more credible assurance that the government was, in fact, living up to its statutory Charter-vetting obligations”. Blackberries were buzzing constantly as executive staffers tried to figure out what was happening. Did a backbencher just refuse to follow instructions? Rathgeber mused, “This may have been precedent setting: a Conservative backbencher looking for assurance that the Minister of Justice was complying with the law!” Eventually Rathgeber vacated his seat as a conservative and sat as an Independent. The whistleblower is still waiting for the Supreme Court to decide if it will consider the matter. (Source: Irresponsible Government. Rathgeber, Brent. 2014) a
- the recent case of the pending prosecution of the engineering and construction firm SNC- Lavalin saw the dysfunction of the Justice Committee exposed in newspapers and on television. This time the former Justice Minister herself was the whistle-blower. She exposed her belief, (supported by a surreptitious recording of a telephone call from the Clerk of the Privy Council) that there was a sustained effort by members of the Prime Minister’s staff and the most senior bureaucrat in the Federal government to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in her role as the attorney general of Canada. As Attorney General, she had rebuffed these efforts to convince her to overrule the decision of her Director of Public Prosecutions to not allow SNC-Lavalin a Deferred Prosecution Agreement to avoid a trial. She was subsequently moved to another Ministry which was considered a demotion. The Justice Committee used its majority to shut down the hearings of the Committee without allowing the Minister an opportunity to rebut other witnesses.
These cases are a few examples that demonstrate the anti-transparency and anti-accountability behaviors that ruling party members in Standing Committees engage in when events become embarrassing or worse. Under the current electoral system – first-past-the-post – the future looks dim for Standing Committees’ ability to provide checks on abuses of power. This is so as the party in power will always have the majority on a committee rather than a number proportional to the percentage of the popular vote it received. This situation likely accounts for the willingness of the Committee to “circle the wagons” in defensive mode and the apparent unwillingness to use the extensive powers of investigation cited above in the interest of getting at the truth.