The Role of House of Commons Standing Committees in a Minority Government

9 GERMAN minute read
19 November 2021

With Parliament convening on Monday, it is worthwhile to recognize that Standing Committees play a critical role in the operations of the House of Commons. In minority Governments, committees present valuable opportunities for opposition parties to exercise influence in shaping policy and influencing the political dynamics on Parliament Hill.  Committees also present unique opportunities for stakeholders to engage in the political process and appear before Members of Parliament to discuss matters of national importance. 

What are Standing Committees?

Standing Committees are permanent committees designed to study key issues within their mandates. They provide their members with opportunities to examine policies in detail, which allows for focused analysis of critical issues. The basic purpose of these committees is to delve into matters before the House of Commons in a forum that is structured to allow for thorough consideration by Members of Parliament (MP's) who have an aptitude for the subject matter in question.

Standing Committees are either creatures of Standing Orders, Orders of Reference from the House, or legislation. They often take responsibility for examining the work of particular government departments. Matters may arise before Standing Committees in various forms, including Bills, Reports, Order-in-Council appointments, and budgetary estimates. Committees operate with constraints as defined by their mandates and Orders of Reference. 

Standing committees generally have broad powers, including powers to do the following:

  • Conduct in-depth studies of legislation, policies and programs;
  • Initiate studies within the scope of their respective mandates;
  • Produce reports with recommendations to the House and the Government;
  • Compel attendance of persons to serve as witnesses before the committee or the production of documents for committee examination;
  • Publish documents;
  • Delegate powers to subcommittees;
  • Disseminate their meetings to the public including in digital forms; and
  • Retain professionals as staff.

Party Whips submit names of MP's from their respective caucuses to sit in committee positions. Each committee may have ten sitting members at any time. Parties are represented in committee in roughly the same proportion as in the House of Commons.

The Chair of Standing Committees is usually from the governing party, with opposition party members taking Vice-Chair positions. Exceptions include the Standing Committees on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics; Government Operations and Estimates; Public Accounts; and Status of Women. 

Opportunities in Minority Government

Opposition committee members have more potential impact in minority governments because they occupy larger proportions of committee seats. Opposition leadership will likely find opportunities in committees to seek concessions from the government or advance their own interests on issues of high importance. For example, in the upcoming parliamentary session, the governing Liberals may not be able to force certain matters through committee stage because opposition parties will strategically exercise their powers in committee to prevent the government from advancing its agenda unchecked. It is likely that opposition parties will find ways to cooperate in areas of mutual interest in an effort to slow down the pace of government legislation or exercise committee powers to delve deeper into matters before them.

The added influence of opposition members may give rise to more expansive examination of key issues, lively debate in committee, and a broadening of committees' scope of exploration on certain matters.

Because of these political dynamics, committees present valuable opportunities for stakeholder engagement. Expert appearances are a vital part of committee work whether they occur during majority or minority Parliaments. However, with more engaged and powerful opposition committee members in minority Parliaments, stakeholders can find opportunities to advance their interests by engaging opposition and government members, both of which wield the ability to exercise influence over the committee's work.

Committee members from governing parties do not hold absolute control over committee powers in minority situations. As a result, stakeholders may present their positions to committees in which each member's work has considerable impact. Every member will be looking for opportunities to exercise the tools at their disposal, and will be open to thoughtfully considering the positions presented by stakeholder witnesses.

There were 27 Standing House Committees at dissolution:

  • Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
  • Agriculture and Agri-Food
  • Canada-China Relations
  • Canadian Heritage
  • Citizenship and Immigration
  • Economic Relationship between Canada and the United States
  • Environment and Sustainable Development
  • Finance
  • Fisheries and Oceans
  • Foreign Affairs and International Development
  • Government Operations and Estimates
  • Health
  • Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities
  • Indigenous and Northern Affairs
  • Industry and Technology
  • International Trade
  • Justice and Human Rights
  • Liaison
  • National Defence
  • Natural Resources
  • Official Languages
  • Procedure and House Affairs
  • Public Accounts
  • Public Safety and National Security
  • Status of Women
  • Transport, Infrastructure and Communities
  • Veterans Affairs

What to expect from the 44th Session of Parliament

The list of Standing Committees may change in the 44th Session of Parliament  to reflect new or emerging priorities.  We already know that science will get more attention from federal Members of Parliament with a new Standing Committee on Science and Research. The motion to create the committee was passed in the House of Commons in late May. 

We might also see committees becoming operational relatively quickly in the New Year, particularly if committee members are appointed before the House adjourns for the holiday.

One committee to watch in particular is the Standing Committee on Finance. Previous Chair and long-term Liberal Member of Parliament for Malpeque, Wayne Easter, has retired.  It will be interesting to see who is elected to replace him. The Chair's first order of business, after the organizational meeting, will be to launch the pre-budget consultations.  This will likely happen early in the New Year as the Committee completed its 2022 Federal Pre-Budget call for submissions in August, before the federal election. 

Something else to watch is the creation of Special Committees. For example, the last session of Parliament saw the creation of two Special Committees: one on Canada-China Relations and the other on the Economic Relationship between Canada and the United States. Special committees are created through of an order of reference adopted in the House of Commons, and appointed by the House to carry out specific inquiries, and cease to exist once a final report has been presented.

In a minority Parliament, committees also provide the Opposition with means to compel the Government to act. The Opposition members of the Canada-China Relations Special Committee, for instance, were quite active in this regard in the last session of Parliament.  Opposition members can utilize the powers of committees to force studies, approve motions compelling the disclosure of documents, and require government officials to appear before them.  We might see more of the same during this session of Parliament.

Conclusion

The structure and machinations of committees in minority Governments present significant opportunities for opposition parties and stakeholders to engage MPs meaningfully and influence policy, programs, regulatory initiatives and legislation. Committees have extensive powers and play a critical role in the development of legislation, the political climate on Parliament Hill, and the positions of parliamentarians on critical issues.

In a minority Government where political strategies can change rapidly – especially when a minority government must be more open to dialogue – committees take on an even more important role. Stakeholders may seek opportunities to take advantage of the political dynamics of a minority Parliament to voice their positions effectively on matters of concern in committees. This front-end effort can play an important role as well in the context of legislative review and analysis before heading to the Senate for further scrutiny in advance of reaching the final stages of a Bill's passage.


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