The Beginnings of the Parliamentary Centre

By Mr. Peter Dobell

I joined the Department of External Affairs in 1952 when Lester Pearson was a dominant figure. As years passed I became increasingly perturbed that the lack of knowledge and understanding of Members of Parliament on international matters was having a deleterious effect on Canada’s foreign policy. In the hope of contributing to improving this situation I decided that when I reached 40 years of age I would resign from the foreign service and set up the Parliamentary Centre. It was to serve as a non-governmental base for a program of activities designed to improve the knowledge and understanding of Canadian Members of Parliament on international affairs, foreign trade and defence.

Six weeks before I had left the Department of External Affairs and opened the Centre’s office, Don Macdonald, the Government House Leader at that time, who knew of my plan, asked if on resigning I would be willing to organize a parliamentary inquiry that was soon to be undertaken by the House Standing Committee on External Affairs and National Defence (as it was then called). I accepted.

At that time committees only undertook inquiries when the House of Commons passed an order of reference setting out issues on which the government sought the considered views of MPs on the relevant committee. In this instance the newly elected government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau had decided to ask a parliamentary committee to prepare a report on whether Canada should retain troops in Europe and remain in NATO. It so happens that the Prime Minister and some other major cabinet ministers were convinced that Western Europe had recovered to the point where Canadian troops were no longer needed over there. However, the government was committed to seek the views of backbench Members on policy matters before it took a decision.

Following a three month study which included two weeks of carefully planned travel through Europe, 27 of the 30 Members of the Committee, including one of the three NDP MPs, voted in support of a resolution they had drafted calling on Canada to retain forces in Europe and even advocating increasing their numbers. (Standing Committees at that time had 30 members. In a House of 275 Members, this was a powerful message). Faced with this unexpected expression of parliamentary opinion, the government, after several weeks discussing the issue in cabinet, compromised by limiting its decision to ordering only a small reduction.

The reputation gained by the Centre for its work with the House of Commons committee led the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs soon after to ask for similar support. Other important committees followed with similar requests: the Senate Committee on National Finance and the Joint Committee on Immigration Policy. During the next decade the Centre continued to be actively engaged in servicing a number of other committees, including the Constitution Committee.

Until 1985 House of Commons committees conducted inquiries when asked by the government to prepare considered views on a policy matter that it was reviewing and considering revising. These inquiries were well funded but rare. The Centre competed for staffing them and was frequently selected. This situation was transformed, however, in 1985 when the House of Commons adopted a ruling that committees could decide when the House was in session to hold an inquiry on any subject of interest to its Members. It was also decided to establish some 18 committees to mirror government departments. Not surprisingly, a substantial number of inquiries were undertaken, but they tended to be much less rigorous. The Centre faced a problem. It had offered limited specialized services for which it required compensation and was not prepared for this new situation, whereas the Library of Parliament’s Research Branch had a substantial number of specialists on payroll and it was able to offer their services to committees at no cost. A few committees that were accustomed to support from the Centre retained its services during the 33rd and 34th Parliaments, which was possible since committees had been allocated sufficient funds to pay for the Centre’s services. However, most of the new committees had had no previous experience with the Centre and happily signed up with the Research Branch. In these circumstances, the Centre gradually ceased to provide research services for committees and concentrated on other activities.

For 25 years after its establishment in 1968 the Centre provided support to the inter-parliamentary associations, that is groups of Members of the Canadian Parliament from all parties who meet, at least annually and in some cases more frequently, with parliamentarians from other legislatures who share the same interest. This practice continued until 1994 when the Liberal government decided to give priority to reducing the national debt. As part of that policy the government terminated the financial support that had been provided to the Centre for assisting these associations. With one exception the Centre ceased to provide this service.

The Centre established and raised sufficient funds privately to organize a useful program under which it arranged visits by Canadian Members of Parliament to Washington to discuss with Members of Congress interesting US policies and programs. It also invited US Congressmen to Ottawa to discuss with Members of Parliament Canadian policies that differed from those that had been adopted in the United States. Regrettably as the time demands on Congressmen grew and it became politically risky for them to leave Washington on Fridays, it eventually proved impossible maintain this program.
When the Iron Curtain came down, the Canadian government initiated through the Department of Foreign Affairs a program to support efforts to develop democratic government in parts of the former Soviet Union. In 1992 I was asked to organize such a program in Russia under the direction of a Board composed of the Clerk of the House of Commons, the Clerk of the Senate and the Parliamentary Librarian. This was the Centre’s first engagement in supporting democratic development.

I retired as director of the Centre in 1997 and was succeeded by Bob Miller, who had been with the Centre for 20 years, principally as advisor to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs. During that time Bob had become interested in the promotion of democracy internationally and in 1985, with the support of the International Development Research Centre, published a major study on Canada and Democratic Development. Thereafter, he became a leading voice in Canada advocating a more robust Canadian role supporting the development of democratic institutions worldwide. Bob’s appointment as director was timely, coinciding with the government’s decision to support policies in the area of human rights, good governance and democratic development and to assign responsibility for this program to CIDA. Under Bob’s leadership the Centre grew into essentially a new institution focused on international parliamentary development.


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