Senators More Defence Value Than MPs?
May 15, 2012

The other evening, while watching a TV commercial about vacuum cleaners on the gargoyle flatscreen in the Peace Tower, I was reminded that many Ottawa pundits have decried the sad state of ­parliamentary government these days. Andrew Coyne recently reminded us of the fact that the current government has eviscerated the parliamentary committee process by presenting short notice omnibus legislation with little room for ­committee review.

Committees have lost the ability to effectively review the implementation of government policy and hold government to account. This sorry state of affairs exists, to some degree, because most Members of Parliament (MPs) and some Senators seldom rise above petty partisanship.

Within this context, vital issues of national defence are regularly tabled in committee, but they rarely enjoy the degree and quality of study Canadians deserve. Endemic ­partisanship prevents committees from hearing all sides of an argument or a variety of perspectives on the same problem. There is no tolerance for criticism or dissent. However, amid these circumstances, it may surprise readers that, in the view of this gargoyle, Canadians receive better service from Senators than they get from MPs. How? Senators tend to walk the talk. MPs just talk.

From my perch here, high up on the southeast corner of the Peace Tower, I have a good view of the East Block to my front and, going clockwise, of the Victoria Building at the corner of Wellington and O’Connor Streets. The historic old East Block is home to a number of parliamentary committees, including the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence, which usually meets twice a week (at present, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm). Its meetings are usually open to the public and available on-line. Across the street, the Victoria Building houses a number of Senators’ offices and a couple of meeting rooms, in which the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence holds court, usually Mondays beginning at 4:00 pm.

There are palpable differences in the character of each committee and in the manner in which they conduct their business. In past years, both committees prided themselves on being able to work with a minimum of partisanship. In the Commons defence committee, the good times ended in 2008, when Rick Casson vacated the chair, to be reassigned as the chair of the Commons committee on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. We know how that went... remember the meetings on the handling of Afghan detainees? Today, Commons defence committee meetings resemble little more than a somewhat constrained version of Question Period (another example of the depths of crassness to which parliament has sunk). Take, for instance, a 23 March 2012 appearance by the Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay and Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino who came to answer questions on supplementary budget estimates. Opposition members peppered the ministers for a definitive cost for each of the new F-35 fighter jets, ignoring explanations that such precision is unattainable at this point in the program. Opposition members pursued nothing in the way of strategic budgetary interest – nothing on the affordability of any future capability; nothing on the strategic effect budget cuts might have on military capacity; and nothing on the impact of a reduced operational tempo on the future combat effectiveness of the Canadian Forces. If any question didn’t have potential to embarrass the ministers, it wasn’t asked.

Given the majority of government committee members and therefore government’s virtual control of the agenda, this committee, like most others, has little hope of doing meaningful work. Add to this government members’ complete subjugation to party media lines, how can Canadians expect any novel, original or helpful ideas from this group?

Things are somewhat better in the ­Victoria building. Senators generally have the benefit of tenure and tend to remain on specific committees far longer than MPs, an advantage that allows them to accrue considerable background knowledge on issues. Given their tenure, Senators can be more involved internationally in defence issues, and have a much better appreciation of the ‘the real’ world out there.

The Senate national security and defence committee is usually a more mature and classier affair than its Commons counterpart, but with Senator Pamela Wallin in the chair, even the Senate committee too often allows a partisan edge to intrude. Recently appointed Conservative senators hold their ears and hum whenever a witness or Liberal Senator ventures to offer a view clearly outside government media lines. Liberal Senators are more often inclined to venture into partisan territory simply to poke a pointed stick into the eye of the tiger. However, on both sides, there are more seasoned Senators who genuinely hope to pursue strategically important issues. Senators Pierre Claude Nolin and Romeo Dallaire come to mind.

In the end, from the perspective of this edge of gargoyles (‘edge’ being the term for a collection of gargoyles) on the Peace Tower, the Senate security and defence committee meetings tend to be much more effective than those of the Commons defence committee. Questions put to witnesses, by both government and opposition sides are generally more strategic in orientation and meaningful in content. ­Minister MacKay recently appeared before this ­committee and when questioned reasonably on financial questions surrounding the F-35 fighter jet program, unlike his time before the Commons defence committee, he was given a chance to explain his perspective of the challenges inherent in such a complex project.

The point being made here is that Senators do a much better job of examining meaningful defence issues than do MPs. National defence matters get a much better airing in a weekly three hour Senate committee meeting than they do in four hours of Commons committee sniping each week. We might remember this when next we hear anyone getting excited about doing away with the Senate. Sober second thought is alive and well. It has value. MPs, on the other hand, need to do better. They need to find the courage to go beyond petty partisanship and engage in genuine study of defence issues. Like the Dyson vacuum cleaners in the commercial I was watching, they need balls.

Hudson on The Hill
© FrontLine Defence 2012