Nevertheless, thanks to the committee members for inviting the CAJ to express our views.
Briefly, as some background on our organization, we are Canada's largest national professional organization for journalists from all media, representing approximately 600 members across the country. We have two primary roles, one to provide high-quality professional development to our members and the second is public interest advocacy, which I guess is why we are here today.
As you know, we are here to provide our organization's perspective and a working journalist's perspective—I am a working journalist; I work for Maclean's—on your study of the Board of Internal Economy.
In my remarks today I really have two themes. The first is parliamentarians' responsibility to be transparent and the second is journalists' responsibility to report in the public interest.
Today I won't provide you with specific recommendations related to the particular composition of any re-imagined Board of Internal Economy. That's not my expertise. But I will emphasize the value of a more transparent board to the public—of course, the public being the citizens who ultimately hold politicians to account.
There are two caveats to my remarks today. The first is that we ought to recognize the steps the board has taken over the years to enhance transparency and improve it. When the Clerk of the House, Audrey O'Brien, testified at this committee earlier this month, she outlined the many steps the board has taken in a good direction: the board's website is more robust than ever; meeting minutes are posted online, and I believe more quickly than they had been before; and members' expenditure reports that are online do outline in some detail how parliamentarians spend their budgets.
The second caveat is that we are sensitive to concerns that matters normally reserved for in camera debate ought to stay behind closed doors. Of course, there are legitimate reasons for in camera sessions, as members of this standing committee or any standing committee know and are well aware of. Neither of those caveats, however, suggest that the board cannot and should not be more open, in our view. We think openness should be the rule, not the exception.
In her testimony, Ms. O'Brien suggested that the benefits of public meetings would be mostly illusory. She said, “I don't think, if the meetings of the board were to be held in public, this would improve the situation. It might improve the perception of the board.” And she added that meetings conducted with open doors would “drive the actual discussion underground” because parliamentarians would be loath to discuss matters candidly and with less overt partisanship.
We are absolutely understanding of those concerns, but, frankly, we don't think that is sufficient reason to close the doors on the board's meetings. If the tenor of debate around the table changes for the worse and is taken safely underground, as she put it, in our opinion that's a failing of MPs that they need to address among themselves. The public shouldn't be barred from meetings because parliamentarians need closed doors to get things done and to get along.
Ms. O'Brien also said that the committee's deliberations are “of mind-numbing ordinariness”, and former law clerk Rob Walsh, testifying at the committee on November 7, said the meetings are “boring as hell”. Interesting as that may be as a comment, the entertainment value of board meetings is really of no importance to journalists, nor the broader public. I have no reason to question Ms. O'Brien's or Mr. Walsh's words, but our job is to witness events and speak truth to power, not to take people of influence at their word and eventually read fairly sparse meeting minutes whenever they are posted online.
The public knows precious little of what happens at board meetings. They know nothing at all about when or where the board will meet. They only know that meetings occur “approximately every second week when the House is sitting”. Approximation is not precision, which I think the public should expect.
Mr. Walsh made several recommendations to this committee. He suggested that board meetings “be held in public with its agendas made public the day before, subject to the usual limitations for privacy”, and further he mused that the board could establish subcommittees that would meet privately and present reports publicly at public meetings. That sounds to us like a step in the right direction.
The committee has asked previous witnesses about the board's treatment of proactive disclosure, namely, whether or not there is enough public disclosure of MP spending. I don't have time during this statement to address that point fully, but I will say that greater and more specific disclosure would help journalists better understand how public money is spent. Not every expensed item, of course, is a matter of public concern, but we'd like the public to make that decision on their own.
In closing, we understand how far the board has come, but anything short of open meetings means the public is effectively cut out of a forum that administers over $400 million of public money each year, and we support open doors to allow us to scrutinize that administration.
Thank you again for inviting me.
I'm happy to take any questions you have, which as you can probably understand is kind of a bizarre thing for a journalist to say to a room full of politicians.