Committee business – Maybe thirteen isn’t such an unlucky number after all.

As first rumoured right here on ITQ, and reported today by the Globe and Mail, the Conservatives are plunging ahead with their plan to seize control of certain House committees by forcing the Liberals to give up one of the four seats currently held by the official opposition – and by the sounds of it, it’s going to be up to the NDP to make sure that the minority government doesn’t end up with de facto majority power:

Party whips and House leaders will decide the distribution of seats over the next three weeks as they prepare for the return of Parliament on Nov. 18. Party representation on committees – where much of the real business of government is done – is supposed to roughly mirror their proportion of seats in the House of Commons.

With a formula of one seat on a 12-member committee for every 25 or 26 seats a party has in the House of Commons, the Tories, with 143 MPs, can make a case that they should have six seats instead of the five they are currently allotted.

If that argument prevails, the Tories would have the same number of seats on each Commons committee as the opposition for the first time since Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006. His minority government would in effect have a majority on the committees where opposition members sit as chair.


The Liberals are showing a willingness to give up their fourth seat on each of the committees after their caucus shrank to 77 MPs from 95.

“The numbers are negotiated between all parties and reflect as much as possible the makeup of the House,” said Patrick McQuilken, who works in the office of Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale.

NDP Whip Yvon Godin said his party is “absolutely” planning to fight to increase its single seat to two – and to prevent the Conservatives from increasing their power on the committees.

“One way or the other, the government is a minority government, and they have to stay as a minority in the committees,” Mr. Godin said. “I don’t see how they can have a majority at committees if they are a minority government.”

As far as I know, this is the first time that we’ve seen an actual formula proposed for dividing up committee memberships – which is, apparently, one for seat at the table for “every 25 or 26 seats”  in the House, which doesn’t seem to correspond with what has actually been done in the past – see the breakdowns for past minority parliaments here – with one exception (Joe Clark in 1979), the government had always held one seat less than a majority – which, on a 12-member committee, would be five seats. In 2000, the Liberals won 172 out of 301 seats – 57% of the House – which gave them nine out of sixteen seats at committee, with three going to the Canadian Alliance, two to the Bloc Quebecois and one each for the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP. (After the merger, the newly formed Conservative Party kept all four seats.)

Even during his first term in office, when Jean Chretien controlled 60% of the House – 177 out of 295 seats – and neither the NDP nor the Progressive Conservatives reaching official party status – the government still only got 7 out of 11 seats on committee (in this case, Canadian Heritage), with two going to the Bloc Quebecois (which was at the time the Official Opposition) and two to Reform. As the chair doesn’t vote except in the case of a tie, this would have given the Liberals six votes to four for the combined opposition parties — in other words, a working majority of 60% of the committee. (On the opposition-chaired Public Accounts committee, which had 12 members, the government still held seven seats, but the opposition went up by one, which made up for losing one vote to the chair.)

So, what does all this tell us? Well, first of all, that the convention of having 12-member committees is by no means set in stone, and, in fact, was most recently established during the Martin minority, with a 5/(4/2/1) seat breakdown – which was also used during the first Harper minority, despite the fact that the Conservatives won twelve fewer seats than the Liberals in 2004. If the newly elected Conservatives want to increase the number of committee slots that the government gets, it ought to first look at expanding the size of the committees themselves, rather than award themselves a majority by forcing the opposition to forfeit one of its seats. But adding one government seat to each committee, for a total of thirteen, would give the Conservatives five seats to the oppositions’ seven on committees that it chairs – one more than it has now, to reflect its increased standing in the House. More importantly, would create a 50/50 breakdown on opposition-chaired committees – a six to six tie, which could be broken by the chair if necessary. Given the acrimonious atmosphere around the table during the last session, the government would likely have far more luck arguing for a boost to the overall committee size than pushing for veto power over the opposition.

Oh, and as for the Liberals’ reported “willingness” to fork over an opposition-held seat without a fight? Honestly, you guys. Did you learn nothing from the last leadership race? Just because a half dozen or so of your MPs may be out on the party party circuit hustling for support doesn’t mean that you can just abandon your responsibilities as the Official Opposition. You talked a good game about the dangers of a Conservative majority during the election campaign – now show some spine and make sure that they don’t end up with a de facto majority in the committee room just because you don’t have the gumption to hold your ground. This isn’t just about one of your seats – it’s about the combined power of the opposition parties, and you owe it to the rest of them – and the people who voted for you, for that matter – not to cede it out because you’re distracted by the glimmer of something shiny off the Hill.

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