In an attempt to protect the government, Liberal chairs of two House of Commons committees are inappropriately shutting down committee meetings when members bring forward motions seeking to reopen the WE Charity probe, say Conservative MPs.
Liberal chairs on finance committee and the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) have both shut down meetings since Parliament returned on Sept. 23. On each occasion, the committee was in middle of discussing a motion requesting access to documents related to the WE Charity scandal.
Conservative MP and finance vice-chair Pierre Poilievre said the committee’s accountability mechanism is eliminated when the chair ends a meeting to protect the government.
“Committees are supposed to hold governments accountable,” he said. “It’s not appropriate for the chair to simply slam the gavel, flip the switch, and turn out the lights when the government is embarrassed.”
Finance committee chair Wayne Easter last week suspended a meeting when Poilievre introduced a motion that sought to give the committee access to previously pre-redacted documents related to the WE Charity scandal.
READ MORE: House law clerk raises alarm about pre-redacted WE Charity docs
The meeting was about two hours in, when Poilievre rose on a point of privilege — used when some question requires immediate consideration, such as making a parliamentary inquiry — to introduce his motion.
Easter told iPolitics he suspended the finance meeting because the committee clerk alerted him that Poilievre’s motion contained a technical procedural problem. While he had to recognize Poilievre on his point of privilege, he couldn’t rule on it, since only the speaker of the House can do that, he said.
As well, the finance committee was dealing with two other motions brought before the committee when Poilievre introduced his on a point of privilege and “effectively jumped the queue,” Easter said.
But Poilievre said that concern over whether a point of privilege is in order doesn’t normally lead to a committee suspension. He said debates about whether motions are in order happen all the time; the chair typically rules on the matter, rather than opting to “switch off the light.”
Poilievre said members of the finance committee aren’t looking to remove Easter as chair yet, but they are following the chair’s conduct carefully.
“He can’t continue in his role, if he’s going to terminate meetings without the permission of the committee when things get uncomfortable for the government,” Easter said.
The finance committee is one of three House committees that have sought to reopen an investigation into the WE Charity scandal, which was shut down when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament in August.
The WE Charity controversy came to light this summer after the Trudeau government outsourced the $500-million Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) — a program to pay students for volunteering — to WE Charity, an organization with which his family, and that of then-finance minister Bill Morneau, had close financial ties for years.
In its first meeting since Parliament’s return, PROC committee chair and Liberal MP Ruby Sahota adjourned a meeting without the consent of the Conservative members on the committee, and cancelled a meeting scheduled for the next day without providing an explanation.
The committee was in the middle of discussing a motion from Conservative MP Karen Vecchio that would have members of the Trudeau government testify before the committee and order the release of previously redacted WE Charity documents, among other things.
“(The rules) were clearly broken,” Conservative MP and chief opposition whip Blake Richards told iPolitics at the time. “There’s clearly an effort here to avoid the meetings. There’s clearly an effort to cover up the matter at hand, which is the WE scandal.”
Thomas Hall, a retired 20-year veteran of the House of Commons and a former procedural clerk, said a chair does not have the right to adjourn a committee meeting without the consent of the committee members. A chair can suspend a committee meeting if it’s disruptive and he or she needs to make a decision, he said. But in these instances, the chair should just adjourn for a short period before calling the meeting back.
Hall also said the committee has the power to set its schedule, and the chair shouldn’t be cancelling committee meetings.
If committee members feel the chair is not acting appropriately, their only recourse is to replace the chair with another member on the committee, Hall said.
READ MORE: Liberals cancel committee while Tories wait to vote on motion to reopen WE Charity probe
The finance committee will address the “illegitimate suspension” when the meeting resumes on Thursday, Poilievre said.
Furthermore, because Canadians returned a minority government in the last federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should respect the opposition majority, “particularly when it comes to accountability and transparency,” Poilievre said.
“(Trudeau) doesn’t get to have 100 per cent control.”