Evidence of meeting #43 for Public Accounts in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was going.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

8:50 a.m.

NDP

The Chair David Christopherson

I now call this 43rd meeting of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts of the House of Commons to order.

Colleagues will know that we had planned to have our Auditor General with us today. You'll know from the e-mail I sent to you and the news release that he had a relatively minor medical emergency that needed to be dealt with. He's going to make himself available as early as Thursday, but of course that's at the pleasure of the committee.

We have quite a bit of business in front of us. We have remnants of the 2011 fall report that we postponed to accommodate the F-35 meeting. We need to reschedule that one and get it back on track.

We have not yet prioritized our chapters from the spring 2012 report, other than chapter 2, on the F-35, which of course we've been focusing on. So we need to work on that.

We have a couple of outstanding motions in front of us. The thing we need to decide right now is how we want to proceed. Again, I'm a little hesitant, because after we lost the steering committee, the easy way to do this was lost.

I have fretted, again, over this notion of what I was going to do when all hands went up, and—we're back into this—who got to control the floor.

I have to tell you, with nobody doing anything and the government putting their hands up, it's all the same to me. I've said this to you before. Twice I've asked for assistance. I've asked for it privately. I've asked publicly. Nobody's taken me up on it, so I'm still left with this impossible situation.

In the absence of a clear rule, I'll let a couple of people speak. But I'm not going to take motions. I just want to give you an opportunity. As I said to you before, it's an impossible situation. You all throw your hands up at once. Whoever gets the floor first has a bearing. The people watching may not see it, but we all know here that inside politics, it matters a whole lot.

Here is my thinking, at this point. With a clear majority, the government always maintains the ability to deny an opposition motion and/or to carry their own motion. The opposition, by themselves, cannot force this committee to do anything. They don't have the votes. The government has 100% built-in control. No one can do anything without the agreement of the government. Conversely, the government can do anything they want, whether the opposition likes it or not, assuming they follow the usual rules of procedure.

With that in mind, all other things being equal, and given that this is an oversight committee whose sole purpose is to watch the books, hopefully in as non-partisan a fashion as possible, I'm going to try to bring some kind of fairness. Again, for those who may disagree, I am willing to host a meeting, private or public, to talk about a different way to approach this. But in the absence of that, I am going to go to the official opposition, then to the Liberals, and then to the government.

I am going to listen to interventions, probably from the government, if they want to make a different argument. But bear in mind that just winning isn't good enough in terms of winning the floor. We don't have a process that's fair. I'm trying to be as fair-minded as I can be, recognizing the mandate of this committee and that ultimately we're accountable to the public. We're the public accounts committee.

That's the way I'm going to proceed. I invite members to meet with me to talk about a different approach, but that's what I'm going to do.

I will now take any interventions. I will not accept any motions during these interventions, because my intent right now is to give the floor to the official opposition, at which time they will have the full right to the floor.

Right now I'm going to give people an opportunity to give me a little input into that decision, particularly from the government, since they would likely have the greatest difficulty with this. With that understanding, I'm willing to hear from Mr. Saxton.

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

Andrew Saxton North Vancouver, BC

Thank you, Chair.

First of all, I'd just like to point out that I've been on this committee for three and a half years. My colleague Mr. Kramp has been on this committee a lot longer than that, as have you. Because of that, you know full well, Chair, that committee business historically, traditionally, has always been done in camera. It’s not just something that this committee has practised; it's something that all committees have practised, in fact.

Therefore, yesterday when I received your agenda, which says “Committee Business”, “Televised”, this is absolutely unprecedented. It is absolutely unusual for this committee—any committee, for that matter. It's got nothing to do with openness or not being open, because we've exercised openness on many occasions on this committee. As you've seen recently, we've even gone against practice, at times, to be open. This is a matter of your setting a very wrong precedent, in my opinion, and you're going down a very slippery slope.

This is committee business. If you want to change the rules of all committees, that's something that should be taken up perhaps in a different forum. But what you have done here, Chair—because it was your decision—is to start a precedent that goes counter and against anything that's ever happened in the public accounts committee, to my knowledge, certainly in the three and a half years that I've been on the committee. I'm sure Mr. Kramp would join me in saying that this is an unprecedented move. I understand where you're going, but I think it's a very slippery slope you have decided to go down.

I'd like to share my time with Mr. Kramp. I'm sure he has a few things he'd like to say on this subject as well.

8:55 a.m.

NDP

The Chair David Christopherson

Of course.

Mr. Kramp, you have the floor, sir.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

Daryl Kramp Prince Edward—Hastings, ON

Thank you, Chair.

With the greatest of respect to the chair, I do agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Saxton, as you would expect. This isn't a question, quite frankly, of who goes first; I think we all understand the realities and the implications of such. But I take great umbrage with the chair unilaterally making the decision that totally changes the direction this committee has generally worked with, as Mr. Saxton has stated.

To use the argument or the discussion point that the government has control because they have more members, well, whether a government has more members or the opposition has more members.... I've sat on a committee that was obviously on the other side of the coin. I've sat in the position where we have been the government, and the opposition have had more members. It was reversed.

To suggest that from this point, because the government has more members they take the back seat all the time is arbitrary, I do believe, and I honestly believe in my heart that it's an abuse of the chair's privilege. It's an abuse of the chair's responsibilities. I do see it as a direct partisan move, with the greatest respect to the chair. I can understand why the opposition wish to go that route. I understand the discussions that take place among all the opposition. It's a clear-cut strategy, and it is unfortunate, because as we move through an event like this and the subsequent examinations, this sets a precedent that I'm concerned will potentially be challenged through the House procedures--I don't know--as we move forward. I would hope that we would never get to that.

I suppose I can sum it up with a very simple word: I'm disappointed. I really am. I think this now takes the obvious politicization of this committee.... Now the chair has, willingly or not, knowingly or not--and I'll try to be deliberately vague here out of consideration for my past history with the chair--led us into an abuse of the work of the committee.

We saw that once before, in a previous chair. We've had some marvellous chairs, we really have--and no umbrage, again, toward this chair--but we saw where all of a sudden it became a one-sided coin. I do understand the dilemma the chair finds himself in with regard to having to pass judgment on whose hand is up first and that kind of thing. I understand there's an ongoing challenge to deal with that, and I do agree with the chair that we should have a process. It would certainly take that off the shoulders of the chair. But with the chair's ruling on an interim way forward until we come to that agreement, I think it is partisan, and I state that, once again, with respect. To arbitrarily just put the government to the back of the bus, and that's the way it's going to be.... Even if there were rotation, even if there were other members....

We saw what happened the last time. This is the process the opposition and the chair followed. Mr. Saxton's hand obviously was up first in the last meeting, and the chair arbitrarily ruled that no, the opposition parties are going to go ahead. Then Mr. Saxton was afforded the opportunity.

Now we're saying the same thing again. What we're doing now is we're building upon a wrong and making more wrongs, and I feel the direction of the committee has been hampered. I would certainly hope that we can in the very near future find a way we can move out of this uncomfortable situation, because now we are politicizing this committee. At the very least, moving forward there should be and could be an alternate, one versus the other--the government side, the opposition side; the opposition side, the government side--whatever way we do move forward. I think the chair sees where I'm going on this.

But to just say that because you have a majority on the committee your concerns and rights aren't going to be respected, we'll just throw you at the back of the bus....

I'll close now by saying I am disappointed, and I wish the chair would reconsider.

8:55 a.m.

NDP

The Chair David Christopherson

Go ahead, Mr. Saxton. Get it all on the table.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

Andrew Saxton North Vancouver, BC

I just wanted to add that I know the chair would like to be fair--he says that he would like to be fair, and I take him at his word. You have had this dilemma for some time now, and the last time you decided to choose the opposition first. So I think the only way to be fair now is to allow the government to go first, and until we come up with a better system, you alternate who goes first. I think that's the only way to be fair.

Otherwise, as Mr. Kramp says, you're throwing us to the back of the bus, and you know that's not going to last. It's just totally unfair.

9 a.m.

NDP

The Chair David Christopherson

Okay, let me throw a couple of things out in response.

Let me deal with the last point first. In terms of alternating, that was one of my suggestions. I said we could rotate who goes first, but nobody took me up on that. To offer that up as an alternative to a decision I had to make in the absence of any alternatives being offered up by anyone is patently unfair. I'm open to the idea of alternating. Ideally it would be nice if we could come to an agreement, rather than having the majority decide what's going to be fair from their perspective only.

Next, let me just say that the issue of recognizing first and being in camera or public are two different things. The issue of who I see first plays almost—not quite, but almost—as big a role when we're in camera. Whoever's first gets a chance to command the floor, because when you have the floor you have the right to make motions. By making motions you can command and control the floor. By virtue of doing that, you de facto control the agenda. So it matters, whether we're in camera or we're in public, who has the floor and who gets the floor. That's why we're always so scrupulous about taking a list of who speaks, trying to make sure the order is accurate, and doing the best we can to be fair with the time allocation. So that's a separate issue.

With regard to the issue we are dealing with right now, for every single F-35 meeting I have, as chair, received requests from media saying “We would like to be there for that meeting. We would like to broadcast or record the entire proceedings. May we have your permission to come in?” Sometimes there are requests from representatives of three, four, or five mainstream TV media in particular, and they have all the equipment. That means we would have all these crews walking around here while the committee was trying to do its business.

So it's a lot easier, it seems to me, for us, and surely a lot easier for the media, if we just agree to flip the switch and we throw the cameras on that are in here. I can't say to the media, “No, you can't come, because the committee members don't want you”, and I'm not sure that there's any one of you here that would want to lead that charge, although you're welcome to. So I have two choices. I can allow the media to come in with their cameras and equipment and crews, or we can take advantage of the fact that we have installed the television cameras. That's been my rule of thumb.

There have been one or two occasions when the issue was so big that before the media even bothered to call, I looked to see if the meeting would be televised, because it was just that obvious. Some of those things are at the discretion of the committee chair. I've tried to be particularly careful around the F-35 because it's so politically explosive, and we all know that substantive issues can morph into procedural issues really quickly, and procedural issues can take over a meeting, as they are doing now.

So there is the issue of whether we are in camera or not.

The other thing I want to mention is that at one of the meetings in the last few weeks when we dealt with committee business, every one of us, I'm going to say to you, was expecting the government would move to go in camera, and it didn't happen. Everybody on the committee agreed to stay in public, and we did the entire committee planning. Most of it—I believe all of it, but certainly most of it—was on the F-35.

So who am I to presume what the will of this committee is when it's dealing with further organizing around the issue of the F-35, when the unanimous decision, in the absence of any motion to go in camera, was the decision of this committee? If I went in camera someone could easily say, “Wait a minute. What gives you the right to unilaterally decide this one is going to be in camera when we as a committee chose, by unanimous consent, to do all that business in public? Who are you, Chair, to do that?”

I'm ready to accept when I'm wrong. I'll take my lumps, and I make my mistakes as everybody else does. But I want colleagues to know....

Oh, the other thing I want to say is that I have not had one word—and you can put down any religious document you want and I'll put hands all over it—of discussion with any opposition member about how things are going to proceed and how there's going to be some kind of trap set for the government. That doesn't happen when I'm in the chair. And they can vouch for me. Any time you see me talking to the opposition members, it's about procedural things that are already known, or they're asking me a detail. It's no different from when Mr. Kramp or Mr. Saxton approaches me in the House.

So there are no deals. I'm not going to destroy my opportunity to try to continue to bring the respect that this committee needs. I'm not going to put that in jeopardy by playing monkey games, especially in a majority House, where the government wins ten times out of ten. It's far more important to me that this committee and my chairing be respected as being fair and non-partisan, as much as humanly possible in this arena, recognizing that I am a partisan.

So I'm open to further thoughts, but that's how we got where we are. That's been my thinking as we've moved forward. I'm in the hands of the committee, as always.

Mr. McKay.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

John McKay Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

Thank you, Chair.

As you know, I'm not a regular member of this committee. I'm substituting for Mr. Byrne, who, I'm sure everyone will be pleased to know, is recovering from pneumonia. He may be not present for a while. So I've not been privy to all the machinations, shall we say, with respect to this committee and its setting of the agenda.

I don't disagree with Mr. Saxton's observation that most committee agenda-setting is done in camera. I don't dispute that. I've been here 14 years, and that's generally true.

It ceases to be in camera when there's a sense that there's an unfairness that has happened, or may happen, or could happen. So the working presumption of being in camera--i.e., there's some give and take, everybody gets a little something, opposition parties get to direct some part of the agenda--all of that is a working presumption of a steering committee. That presumption seems to have gone out the window here. It appears to have gone out the window because of an enthusiasm, particularly on the part of the government, to not have the deliberations of the committee with respect to the F-35 any more public than they absolutely have to be.

As a consequence, the deliberations with respect to the direction and agenda of this committee are, at the opposition's desire, in public and on television thus far. I just thought that there is an irony in the name of this standing committee. It is the public accounts committee. Generally speaking, public should be preferenced over private, because it is one of the very few opportunities members of the opposition have to actually ask real questions and potentially get real answers with respect to issues such as the F-35.

I'm here to move Mr. Byrne's motion on the F-35, and I'm just flipping through it--actual statement of operational requirements, full life-cycle analysis, bid evaluation criteria. All of that is stuff the public is interested in. Why there would be such a resistance.... If there's anything that is in a nature of a secretive aspect to any of this stuff and that imperils national security in any way, I'm sure any witness will bring that to the clerk's or your attention, sir, and say that on this item, or this item within this item, the committee should not be studying it in public and possibly no one outside of the Privy Council should be studying it.

Working on the presumption that a public accounts committee is first and foremost public, my sense of it is that motions and even this discussion need to take place in public. Your ruling is correct.

I would say finally that this entire matter can be resolved in a heartbeat, if in fact Mr. Saxton on behalf of the government simply allows the motions that the opposition wish to put forward to take place in public and the votes to take place in public. It's pretty simple that way.

Thank you for that opportunity.

9:10 a.m.

NDP

The Chair David Christopherson

Thank you.

I apologize, Monsieur Ravignat, I should have gone to you first, as I'd outlined earlier. You now have the floor, sir.

9:10 a.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat Pontiac, QC

That's okay.

I was listening very carefully to what my colleagues were saying on the other side. To a certain extent I would be sympathetic to what they were saying, provided we were in an ideal situation. The reality is that this public accounts committee is not functioning like the public accounts committee did in the past. There's very little goodwill to proceed with the important oversight function we have. The subcommittee, which could be the place where we would create some form of consensus around witnesses heard and the agenda, has been abolished by my Conservative colleagues.

If we were in that ideal situation, then of course it would be normal to have our procedures to decide on the agenda and so forth in camera. The reality is that it's not normal, which begs the need to make public what the opposition is proposing and to have the government or other members of the committee deliberate on this issue as well as share their opinion. I think Canadians have a right to know that there has been a request to hear from certain witnesses and that this request has been denied, for whatever reasons.

So I think I'd like to come back. Obviously I sympathize with the chair's situation. I think it's untenable to play the gunslinger approach in trying to get the floor. It's an unacceptable way of proceeding. I think I speak for my other opposition colleagues that we're clearly willing to speak with the Conservatives, with the government side, to talk about how we could get out of this impasse, maybe reconstituting a subcommittee, so we could go forward with a more consensus-based approach with regard to the length of debates and the witnesses we want to hear from.

Canadians have a right to know there are people around the table who want to hear from people like the minister, Peter MacKay, on F-35s; Julian Fantino, obviously, the associate minister; and the public works minister. The debate was such in the last few weeks that it begs that we bring these people forward. We're far more uncertain as to what went on than we were before, and the only way to clarify this for Canadians is to continue this debate and call the proper witnesses.

I also would like to add that procedure can be used as a weapon to silence debate. This government has had a poor record since May 2 in that regard, in using procedural process to close debate.

I forgot to mention that I should probably share my time with Mr. Allen, as Mr. Saxton did with Mr. Kramp.

9:10 a.m.

NDP

The Chair David Christopherson

Very well.

Mr. Allen.

9:10 a.m.

NDP

Malcolm Allen Welland, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Let me start by talking about this idea, which was in place last fall when I returned to this committee, of how quickly one gets one's hand up and whether one competes or not. If you go back and look at the record, you will see that the government side probably won that race 80% of the time, if not more. It became very apparent to me, as the lead of the opposition side at that time, that it was a futile attempt to out-race Mr. Saxton, for a couple of reasons. One is that I had two surgeries on my right shoulder many years ago, and it doesn't really work