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House spent more than $600,000 and 200 hours on Electoral Reform Committee report, then the Liberals dismissed it

By Marco Vigliotti      

All House committees spent $3.26-million in 2016-17, more than double the $1.49-million recorded in 2012-13, the next largest total of the past five years.

Special House Committee on Electoral Reform members, from left, Conservative MP Scott Reid, Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, and NDP MP Nathan Cullen. New statistics show the committee cost taxpayers more than $600,000. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Parliamentarians spent more than $600,000 and 200-plus hours compiling a 333-page report recommending major changes to the country’s voting system that was largely rejected by the Trudeau government within hours of its release, new House of Commons statistics show.

The Special Committee on Electoral Reform, convened by the House to study and consult on prospective changes to the federal election process, posted the largest tab of any House committee over the course of 2016-17, according to spending figures released last week by the House Liaison Committee, which determines committee budgets.

The all-party Electoral Reform Committee spent $477,910 travelling across the country to hear directly from Canadians, with another $125,839 charged for the work of Library of Parliament research assistants and the committee’s operational budget, which includes working meals, reports, and professional services.

In the report, the Electoral Reform Committee recommended a national referendum be held on switching to some sort of proportional representation system at the government’s choosing based on the Gallagher Index, which measures the disparity between the popular vote and seat allocation.

Within hours of its release last fall, then-democratic institutions minister Maryam Monsef (Peterborough-Kawartha, Ont.) trashed the report in the House, accusing the committee of failing to do its job by not recommending a specific electoral system, and announced the government would move on to the next stage in consultations on reform, an online survey at MyDemocracy.ca.

Ms. Monsef, who later apologized for her remarks, was soon shuffled out of the portfolio, though her successor as minister, Karina Gould (Burlington, Ont.), announced earlier this year that the government wouldn’t pursue changes to the electoral system, as promised in the 2015 campaign, after failing to secure a consensus amongst Canadians for an alternative voting process.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.), who sat on the Electoral Reform Committee, called the report “one of the most exhaustive” ever produced by Parliament, and criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and the Liberal government for ignoring the findings.

He accused of Mr. Trudeau of not only breaking his promise of making 2015 the last election held under the first-past-the-post electoral system, but also his campaign commitment to respect and empower Parliament, by swiftly dismissing the recommendations of the committee.

“[It] really showed how unconcerned Trudeau was over people’s time and money, because he wasted both in great quantities,” he said.

The government response to the committee report, however, does show that the government agreed to some of the other committee recommendations, including that mandatory and online voting should not be implemented.

According to Liaison Committee figures, the Electoral Reform Committee spent more than 217 hours in meetings for its study. Opposition MPs formed a majority on the committee, with the Liberal members including a dissenting report that disagreed with key recommendations.

Despite his disappointment, Mr. Cullen defended the work of the committee as laying the necessary groundwork for the next steps on electoral reform, as well as leading to better awareness and more fulsome discussions about changing the voting system.

Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu (Sarnia-Lambton, Ont.), who sits on the Liaison Committee, pointed to the electoral reform backpedal as evidence of “hypocrisy” by the Liberal government, saying Mr. Trudeau wasted taxpayers’ money by embarking on sham consultations, including the Electoral Reform Committee, MyDemocracy survey, and tours by Ms. Monsef and her then-parliamentary secretary Mark Holland (Ajax-Pickering, Ont.) under the guise of consulting with Canadians, only to completely disregard what they heard.

“They essentially wasted that money,” she said.

Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia (Lac-Saint-Louis, Que.), chair of the Electoral Reform Committee, defended the “comprehensive” consultations conducted by the committee as necessary to understand the views of the Canadian public on the fundamental question of how they should vote.

Through the work of the committee, he said it was determined there wasn’t the broad consensus needed to proceeded with substantial changes to the voting system, a conclusion reached only after crossing the country to hear directly from Canadians.

“It was an important exercise,” Mr. Scarpaleggia said, who called the report a “great resource” for anyone wanting to familiarize themselves with electoral reform.

“We’re very proud of the work that we did and we’re very proud of the report that we produced, and quite frankly I’m proud of the collegiality that existed on the committee.”

When asked, Mr. Scarpaleggia credited the “unique” composition and mandate of the committee for contributing to the high bill.

The committee, he said, was made up of representatives from all parties represented in the House and was tasked with consulting broadly with Canadians on reform, as opposed to simply inviting experts to Ottawa to share their expertise, like most other committees.

It also had to develop a survey to gauge the views on electoral reform of those in attendance at its meetings, he added.

Liberal MP Larry Bagnell (Yukon), a member of the Liaison Committee, also praised the work of the Electoral Reform Committee as a “valuable exercise” that will provide crucial guidance for future Parliaments.

Liberal MP Larry Bagnell, a member of the House Liaison Committee, says committee travel is especially important to Canadians in rural or remote ridings, who cannot easily travel to Ottawa to testify in front of committees. Mr. Bagnell represents the Yukon. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

“I’d say any committee report, and this includes Senate committee reports, provides a great record of witnesses and what they said for future consideration at times when people are doing things,” he told The Hill Times.

“Quite often, you’ll hear in Parliament through speeches or [during] a parliamentary committee, reference to a report that was made several years prior.”

As part of its study, the Electoral Reform Committee embarked on four separate trips, visiting 17 different communities in every province and territory.

It accrued $206,408 in transportation expenses, $74,990 in accommodations and per diems, and $196,511 on miscellaneous costs, like audio-visual equipment, meeting rooms, excess baggage fees, passport and visa processing, and conference fees.

At $152,512, the costliest trip saw Electoral Reform Committee members visit Whitehorse, Victoria, Vancouver, Leduc, Alta., and Yellowknife.

Individual legs of trips weren’t broken down in the Liaison Committee report, though the visit to Iqaluit was listed by itself and cost $95,245.

Committee spending up by $3-million

Collectively, House committees spent $3.26-million in 2016-17, about two-thirds of which was for travel costs. Expert witnesses were the next biggest expense at $674,426, followed by miscellaneous costs at $263,045, and video conferences at $214,561.

It’s the most spent on House committees over the past five years, vastly outstripping the $388,959 posted in 2015-16, which was interrupted by one of the longest election campaigns in Canadian history that shuttered legislative activity between September and the Christmas break for all but less than two weeks.

Ms. Gladu blamed poor budgeting by the Liberal majority for the surge in spending, saying committees that exceeded their spending allotments for travel were simply provided with additional resources by the Liaison Committee.

She recommended committees thoroughly assess their projected travel spending and share their estimates with the Liaison Committee before budgets are decided.

“I really think the government is not a good manager of money. In the real world, you have a budget and you stick to your budget,” she said.

“The way you develop a budget is that you figure out what are the plans for the committee and how much that’s going to cost, and you put that into the budget.”

Ms. Gladu acknowledged that in recent months there has been improvement, with the Liaison Committee more closely scrutinizing funding requests and even asking some committees to trim their budgets.

Committees, she noted, have also taken steps to lower travel costs, including taking only a maximum of seven members on any trips.

In 2014-15, the last full year under Conservative governance, $840,100 was spent on committees, down from the $1.02-million spent the previous year and the $1.49-million expensed in 2012-13, according to the Liaison Committee report.

Procedural politics, though, played a factor in deflating spending under the former Conservative government.

In protest of controversial election legislation, the NDP in 2014, then serving as the official opposition in the House, withheld the unanimous consent required to permit committee travel spending. The move effectively grounded committees in Ottawa.

According to Mr. Bagnell, increased travel spending by committees allows for better dialogue between voters living in rural and remote areas and decision-makers. He said residents in his sprawling northern riding would likely need to sacrifice three days just to make an appearance in Ottawa.

“There’s a lot of people in the rural parts of Canada that can’t afford to give up three days of their life to give a five-minute statement and appear before a committee,” he said.

“If it’s in their own territory, in their own province, you can hear a lot more witnesses.”

Liberal MP Judy Sgro (Humber River-Black Creek, Ont.), chair of the Liaison Committee, said that while spending has increased, committees are studying “a much broader range” of topics of importance to Canadians, reflective of the Liberal campaign commitment to reinvigorate Parliament.

“The hard work of committees will continue in the future and this is a promise kept from the last campaign,” Ms. Sgro said in an emailed statement.

House committees heard from 6,192 witnesses in 2016-17, easily surpassing the 3,475 recorded in 2012-13, the previous high-water mark of the past five years. Over the past year, committees met for roughly 2,583 hours.

Committees held 1,385 meetings in 2016-17, far surpassing the 475 recorded the previous year. Committees held 899 meetings in 2014-15, 877 in 2013-14, and 1,144 in 2012-13.

They also produced 172 reports last year, compared to 106 in 2015-16 and 155 in 2014-15.

mvigliotti@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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