Friday, May 11, 2007

Benoit: I don't need no stinkin' rules of order

Lord Kitchener's Own posted on this CanWest article detailing the depths to which Conservative MPs are willing to sink to circumvent parliamentary procedure. As he says, it's difficult to come up with anything humourous or ironic about it. (All emphasis mine)
The firestorm erupted within minutes of testimony by University of Alberta professor Gordon Laxer that Canadians will be left “to freeze in the dark” if the government forges ahead with plans to integrate energy supplies across North America.

He was testifying on behalf of the Alberta-based Parkland Institute about concerns about the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), a 2005 accord by the U.S., Canada and Mexico to streamline economic and security rules across the continent. The deal, which calls North American “energy security” a priority, commits Canada to ensuring American energy supplies even though Canada itself — unlike most industrialized nations — has no national plan or reserves to protect its own supplies, he argued.

At that point, Tory MP Leon Benoit, chair of the Commons Standing Committee on International Trade which was holding the SPP hearings, ordered Laxer to halt his testimony, saying it was not relevant.

Opposition MPs called for, and won, a vote to overrule Benoit’s ruling.

Benoit then threw down his pen, declaring, “This meeting is adjourned,” and stormed out, followed by three of the panel’s four Conservative members.

The remaining members voted to finish the meeting, with the Liberal vice-chair presiding.

Benoit’s actions are virtually unprecedented, observers say; at press time, parliamentary procedure experts still hadn’t figured out whether he had the right to adjourn the meeting unilaterally. Benoit did not respond to calls for comment.

Hmmm... a few points need to be made here.

If someone has been invited to testify it is contingent on the committee to determine the relevance of the testimony after it is complete. In a parliamentary committee the chair sets the agenda, but the majority of members will determine the relevance of any testimony or evidence submitted for consideration. The chair does not possess the power to halt testimony unless a majority of committee members agree.

Parliamentary procedure experts can pore all over Benoit's actions all they want. The optics of his behaviour alone speaks volumes and demonstrates either a lack of competence as a committee chairman or an intentional attempt to stifle free and open debate. Either way, Benoit should be destooled.

As for the act of adjournment itself, "unprecedented" is a mild description of Benoit's behaviour. Unless something has changed in parliamentary procedures used by Canada's parliament, the chair cannot unilaterally adjourn a meeting. In fact, the chair cannot make a motion for adjournment. At best the chair can determine the date and time of the next meeting and call for a motion to adjourn and the committee votes on the motion.

What Benoit did is a demonstration of how the Conservatives view the democratic parliamentary process. Benoit didn't like what he was hearing from Gordon Laxer and attempted to halt his statement, a contravention of chapter 20 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice. When he was overruled by the majority of the committee, who wished to hear Laxer's testimony, he again presumed to dispense with the parliamentary process by simply bringing the committee's work to an abrupt end, without calling for adjournment or setting the time and date of the next meeting.

If anything though, this should scare the hell out of Canadians. Benoit's behaviour is simply an extension of the performance we witness in Harper, who throws a temper tantrum when he doesn't get his way. That would be bad enough if it didn't cast a light on a broader picture.

If this is the way the Conservatives behave when they are in a minority position, what can we expect if they ever form a majority?

Benoit took a position which can only be described as a mixing of the roles of government and parliament. His chairmanship of a committee may be established by virtue of being in government but his role belongs to parliament and in parliament decisions rest with the majority. Benoit, and some of his fellow travelers, were unable to live with that centuries old tenet of common law.

Imagine how the Conservatives would corrupt the process if they had a majority.

It's another maneuver taken from the US Republican playbook. If the Harperites ever achieve a majority you can expect debate and dissent to be completely and utterly stifled. They're trying it with a minority and with a majority it would be a sure bet. We would be faced with the Bonanno Rules of Order.

And if Benoit doesn't like the reference, there's only one thing to say to him: If you're going to act like a thug, I'm going to compare you to a thug.

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