Circus act detracts from the real work of MPs

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
May 26, 2015

Today the House of Commons foreign affairs committee begins its study of North American integration and competitiveness. This forward-looking exercise is to help prepare for the Leaders Summit that Canada will host later this year. It is also a more accurate reflection than the usual skeptical portrait of our parliamentarians at work.

That Canadians have diminishing confidence in Parliament is neither surprising nor new. Fifty yards off the Hill and members of Parliament are “nobodies” gibed Pierre Trudeau in 1969. MPs are equally frustrated, as Samara founders Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan relate in their The Tragedy in the Commons.

Public perception is not helped by media reportage of the gong-show, gotcha episodes in Question Period abetted by the continuing reports of misconduct in the trial of suspended senator Mike Duffy.

But this picture is partial and unfair. Most members of Parliament spend their days meeting with constituents and interest groups and in committee, scrutinizing both budgets and policy.

Committees are the one place where small groups of MPs meet face-to-face and, occasionally, travel together. Their shared interest in finding solutions, especially to our international issues, usually results in them setting aside undue partisanship.

Mostly unreported, their foreign affairs work is practical and insightful.

Senate reports, in particular, are traditionally balanced, reflecting the latitude and experience that comes with appointment and mandatory retirement only at 75. During the seventies, then chair George van Roggen held hearings and issued a series of reports on Canada-U.S. relations that helped shift attitudes toward freer trade.

During this session, the Senate foreign affairs and international trade committee work included the convention on cluster munitions, the free-trade agreements with Korea and Honduras, political developments in Turkey, security and economic conditions in Asia-Pacific and the potential for increased North American integration.

Turkey holds elections next month. The committee’s report, Building Bridges, recommended making Turkey a strategic priority, potentially a free-trade partner. Arguing for deeper political engagement through high-level visits, it also encouraged better marketing of Canadian education by including work-study opportunities.

Building Bridges gently chided the government’s emphasis on commercial diplomacy as “insufficient” to building “durable and trusting” relations. Achieving this depends on a “co-ordinated foreign policy.”

The House foreign affairs committee has already hosted briefings on topics including Canada’s response to the Islamic State and the deployment of Canadian Forces to Iraq, freedom of religion in Nigeria, and on the threat of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Members examined the situations in Hong Kong, Syria, Ukraine and the plight of Jewish refugees from Middle East countries.

Their Islamic State report, based on appearances by ministers, officials, including those from United Nations agencies, and scholars, argues that Canada should continue to participate in the United States-led coalition and support UN sanctions. It supports work with partners to contain Islamic State’s appeal to youth and to sustain humanitarian assistance, especially to minorities and youth.

The government should act on the House international trade committee’s report on the Canada-Europe trade agreement in which they recommend preparation and implementation of a comprehensive communications plan to both publicize and secure passage of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). The committee also argued for a study of the infrastructure necessary to get our goods to market and the streamlining of customs procedures.

On the security and defence side, both the House and Senate committees have been active.

During this session the Senate committee has reported on ballistic missile defence (BMD), threats in the Indo-Asia Pacific region, security threats facing Canada, the mental health challenges facing members of our Armed Forces. On BMD, drawing on evidence from witnesses including former Liberal defence ministers Bill Graham and David Pratt, the committee unanimously recommended that Canada enter into agreement with the United States to become a partner in BMD.

Its House counterpart looked at NATO’s Strategic Concept and the Canadian role in international defence co-operation. It underlined the value of NATO membership arguing that “forward defence” serves Canada and implicitly making the case for Canada to meet NATO’s defence spending target of 2 per cent of GDP.

Stephen Harper deserves credit for instituting parliamentary debates over military interventions. To further parliamentary awareness in foreign affairs, prime ministers and ministers could usefully reinstitute the practice of reporting to Parliament on their travels. Mr. Harper could begin after the upcoming G7 meeting in Bavaria, Germany.

Reforms, like those suggested in Samara’s Democracy Reports, can only help improve parliamentary oversight, including on foreign affairs. But let’s not forget that our parliamentarians are doing useful work that serves Canada’s foreign interests.

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