Public Accounts vs. F-35s: Procedural chaos

The Public Accounts committee’s first meeting on the study of the Auditor General’s report on the F-35s was a battle of duelling procedural motions as the government tried to set the timeline further into the week, versus Liberal Gerry Byrne’s motion to accelerate the pace, much to the exasperation of NDP members.

Conservative MP Andrew Saxton’s motion, which was up for debate first, would see the planning meeting for the hearings to be held on Tuesday the 24th, with the suggestion that they begin hearing witnesses on the following Thursday. But when pressed as to why they didn’t use today’s meeting to do the planning session, the government offered no excuse, only that they wanted to “set forward a clear process” to move forward.

Saxton also took exception to Bryne’s motion laying out a list of proposed witnesses, despite the fact that Byrne insisted the list was not exclusive and open to friendly amendments to add names, but could see no reason why the government would not want to hear from the officials he listed. Saxton’s own proposed list would have department deputy ministers decide which officials they wanted to bring with them, which Byrne objected to as a means by which those deputy ministers could shield those who had a hand in the abuse of the procurement process.

While Conservative MP Bev Shipley tried to argue that they didn’t have notice that today’s meeting would be for planning – as though there would be any other reason to recall the committee on a break week to consider a study. And when the committee moved onto Saxton’s motion, Byrne attempted to amend it to make it more like his own – that the planning session would be held today, that his preliminary witness list be considered so that deputy ministers could not shield other officials, and that they ensure that no more than two witnesses appear at a time for a minimum of an hour for each panel.

NDP MP Malcolm Allen chided the members of other parties for the duelling motions and suggested hashing out the process in bite-sized chunks to come to better agreement, with both parties giving up ownership of their own motions, and Byrne warned that if they didn’t agree to his list as a start then they had nobody but themselves to blame when deputy ministers shielded all officials below them, but when the amendments were voted on, they were defeated by the Conservative majority.

With that, the committee turned to a friendly Conservative amendment that would see the witness testimony begin on the 26th, meaning that the planning meeting is moved until Tuesday (which Byrne called a “waste of resources), and with no assurances that anyone below a deputy minister’s paygrade will appear, nor that panels won’t be stacked with so many witnesses as to make them useless, with there being insufficient time to get any substantive questioning of all of the witnesses.

The NDP did move that the planning session be held in public and not in camera, which the Conservatives opposed. With that, the vote on Saxton’s motion went ahead on a vote of seven to four. The hearings on the Auditor General’s report will begin on Thursday the 26th.