In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Chairing a Senate Committee

Posted 6/12/2009 by Senator Grant Mitchell

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This week I have had some new experiences in my role as Deputy Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources. I was appointed Deputy Chair after the last election.

Generally, the Deputy Chair does not chair meetings. This week the Chair was away and I chaired two committee meetings. On Tuesday evening, we heard testimony on Bill C-16 from shipping industry representatives. C-16 is a bill that enhances environmental penalties. Thursday morning we heard the presentation by Senator Jerry Grafstein on his Bill S- 208 which would bring tap water under federal health regulations.

Chairing a meeting does come with some challenges.

It is a fine balance trying to keep Senators questions and witnesses’ answers concise enough to ensure the meeting finishes on time. There is, on the one hand, a real sensitivity about cutting Senators off. Chairs are reluctant to do that and I was particularly sensitive to this problem being a new chair. And yet, some Senators are inclined to make lengthy statements rather than a short preamble to a concise question. This is problematic because there are set time allocations for committee meetings in the rules. Senators are usually amenable to going over the time a bit out of fairness to Senators who have yet to speak, but there is a limit to this.

So, I found myself reminding Senators how much time we had left and how many Senators were still on the list. At one point, I asked a Senator who was making a long statement whether he might have a question in mind. That was as pointed as I wanted to get.

Committee hearings are where we ask questions to get information from witnesses. Second and third reading debates in the Chamber are where we can make our statements and debating points. Of course, there is the fact that committee hearings are televised and Senate Chamber debates are not. Another reason to televise the Senate debates.

On Tuesday, we passed the environmental enforcement bill through our committee. There was all party support for it which made the process easier. However, there were a couple of concerns raised by the shipping industry that we all felt we had to do something with. To raise these we attached what we call "observations" to the report that accompanies the bill back to the Senate chamber for third reading.

We agreed to "observe" that the government's policy not to contradict the UN convention on the law of the sea should be written into the legislation. We also agreed to "observe" that Canada needs port facilities where ships can safely dump waste.

We were running out of time and so the committee authorized that the Chair and Deputy Chair could approve the written observations.

My experience this week illustrated to me once again the importance of focused work and consensus building in the committee process.

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