a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Parliamentary media shirked their duties

The topic of this blog is really something one would expect in a banana republic, not in Canada. And the topic is all the more bizarre because you have not been able to read about it or hear about it through the media.

In the dying days of the spring session on Parliament Hill just before the summer recess, the Commons environment committee voted, in secret, to not only reject a draft report on the Oil Sands but to order it shredded.

The draft report was written by committee staff after almost three months of testimony by environmentalists and oil industry executives.

Commons committees routinely use draft reports by staff as working documents while MPs on all sides deliberate on recommendations. But the committee, at least a majority of MPs on the committee, decided this particular report, based on 300 pages of testimony, had to be suppressed.

We don't know why exactly because parliamentary committees deliberate on draft reports behind closed doors. But since the report likely would not have included recommendations --that's the MPs' job -- we can only conclude someone didn't like what was in witness testimony. Could it have been the Conservative MPs who dominate the committee?

At the moment there is only one copy of the report locked up in the Commons Clerk's office. It will not be tabled in Parliament. Nor will it be released to the public.

According to The Hill Times, Conservative MPs on the committee are claiming the public is not being deprived because anyone is free to examine transcripts of almost three months of testimony. But that is a hollow argument.

In fact, the committee's action goes against everything a democratic Parliament should stand for.

But the committee's action isn't the only thing that is disgraceful in this sordid affair.

Where was the Parliamentary Press Gallery? This incident went unreported in mainstream media at the time and continues to be ignored, at least by major newspapers and broadcast outlets.

As a former member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, I can tell you there is no media conspiracy here. Media have been neglecting the important work of parliamentary committees for years. In addition, media are so preoccupied with covering politics like it was a horse race, they frequently miss important issues unless the Opposition decides to raise them.

And that leads to another question -- where was the Opposition? Had environmentalists not demanded to know what happened to the committee's report, no one off Parliament Hill would know.

If parliamentary democracy does die in Canada, the media and the Opposition will have to share the blame.

If you would like to know what the Commons environment committee did hear about the Oil Sands, check out article by Andrew Nikiforuk on TheTyee.ca or a story by Kristen Shane in the July 26 edition of The Hill Times.

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