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The NDP promoted Galen Weston’s appearance at a House of Commons committee this week as if it was a heavyweight title fight — as if NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and the executive chairman of Loblaws were about to settle their differences like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Any objective ringside judge would have to score Wednesday’s match a draw. Which is not to say that hauling Weston before a parliamentary committee was a waste of time.
Parliament’s primary responsibilities are (in no particular order) debating and passing legislation, scrutinizing government spending and holding the prime minister and cabinet to account.
Calling in the head of a large grocery chain to chew him out doesn’t obviously fit into any of those assignments. But Parliament also has the ability and the power to convene and focus public attention on important issues and concerns. And it’s hard to argue that a famous or prominent non-politician appearing before a committee doesn’t generate a higher level of public and media interest than the average parliamentary hearing.
WATCH: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh grills grocery CEO
This sort of spectacle is perhaps more commonly associated with the United States Congress — think, for instance, of Major League Baseball players publicly testifying about steroid use in 2005. But it also seems to be an increasingly popular tactic for Canadian parliamentarians, who have also called on Facebook executives and airline executives in recent years.
When MPs manage to (mostly) stop trying to undermine each other and focus instead on a common target, they can be quite effective interrogators. Consider the incredible pressure that members of the heritage committee were able to bring to bear on Hockey Canada last fall when MPs chose to study that organization’s handling of sexual assault allegations. This week, the same committee gave Canada’s national women’s soccer team an official forum to explain their concerns about the management of Canada Soccer.
There are certainly worse ways for Parliament to spend its time. And such hearings also have the benefit of making Parliament more prominent and relevant to Canadians.
Parliament still needs to get results
But there’s also a risk involved in putting too much emphasis on confrontations like Wednesday’s showdown between Singh and Weston — at least if the public back-and-forth doesn’t lead to something substantive.
While Singh showed up to Wednesday’s meeting of the agriculture committee with a stack of what he said was 2,000 questions for Weston that had been submitted to the NDP, he wasn’t quite able to corner the grocery executive or thoroughly unravel Weston’s claims that Loblaws is doing nothing untoward in its pricing of food.
“How much profit is too much profit?” Singh asked Weston. “You’re making more money than you’ve ever made. How much profit is too much profit?”
“We’re a big company and the numbers are very large but it still translates right down to the bottom line at one dollar [of profit] per 25 dollars of groceries,” Weston responded.
Maybe there was something cathartic about Singh confronting Weston publicly and directly — at least for viewers frustrated by inflation and convinced that Weston is somehow to blame. Singh may have gained some new fans this week.
WATCH: Grocery CEOs insist they’re not to blame for high food prices
It’s also possible that the public attention will put additional pressure on major grocers to keep prices as low as possible.
But whether those companies are unnecessarily increasing prices is a point of debate. And Wednesday’s hearing didn’t settle it.
A study by the Competition Bureau might get closer to a definitive answer. Parliament might at some point decide that further action is necessary to control food prices.
But unless these closely watched hearings lead to substantive change at least occasionally, Canadians might wonder whether MPs are only interested in putting on a show.