New committee selection system ‘less democratic’

By Jen Skerritt

Electing committee chairs openly is more democratic than secret ballot elections that promote a secret agenda, says Ottawa Centre MP Mac Harb.

“If we really want a system that’s open and transparent we should have kept it the way it was before,” he says.

Previously, the prime minister nominated candidates to maintain a regional and gender balance. Harb says this gave women, minorities and people from different parts of Canada the chance to become committee chairs, when they may not have been elected if they ran openly.

Harb was one of 87 Liberal MPs who voted against the Opposition motion with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien on Nov. 5. After the prime minister declared it was a free vote, 56 Liberal MPs, including leadership front-runner Paul Martin, sided with the Opposition to pass the motion 174-87.

Although 13 committees elected the same individuals as the prime minister, Harb says the elections have made a huge difference. He says five vice-chairs from the Canadian Alliance have lost their positions, paving the way for the election of five new vice-chairs from other opposition parties.

While the media continue to focus on the internal divide within the Liberal Party, Harb says the minor procedural vote is not a big deal. He says the free vote allowed MPs to vote the way they want, and this will not damage the party in the next election. “The Prime Minister is sleeping well, as well as my colleagues on both sides of the issue,” he says. “After all, we are Liberals. We have the right to different opinions.”

Despite Harb’s stance on the issue, others maintain that secret ballot elections are more democratic. Caroline Andrew, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa, says most regimes around the world use secret ballot elections because they uphold democracy.

“Secret ballots preserve people’s right to think about things, and not be influenced by external factors,” she says.

Brenda O’Neill, a political studies professor at the University of Manitoba, agrees, saying while the old system may have been more open, it was simply a tool for political rewards and internal party power.

“It wasn’t about ensuring equity,” she says. “It was a mechanism for rewarding individual MPs who the prime minister thought were worthy of some kind of reward.”

O’Neill says while the new elections may remove some of the prime minister’s power, they still won’t reform the democratic process because of the overwhelming power of the Cabinet to make decisions.

Harb says the government is currently working on other ideas that will actually help reform Parliament. He says reforms like electronic voting in the House of Commons could save both time and thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ money.

Meanwhile, Harb says he plans to run for re-election and will continue to support the prime minister.

“He still has a year and a half to go,” he says. “We have to give him the support that’s necessary for him to complete his mandate.”