Committee Business: Six of one, half dozen of the other?

Not when it comes to House committees, that’s for sure — not when, as previously –  and exhaustively – documented, a sixth seat at the table would give the Conservatives a de facto majority on at least three committees currently chaired by the opposition: Public Accounts, Government Operations and Estimates, and – perhaps most critically, given the antics of the last session – Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

To secure that elusive extra vote, however, the Government House Leader – currently, the almost cartoonishly partisan Peter Van Loan – will have to convince the other three parties that his expanded – but still minority – government caucus should, by rights, get one of the four committee slots held by the Official Opposition during the last Parliament.  The makeup of the membership is not set in stone by the Standing Orders, but is the result of agreement between the parties — all the parties – and although the rules state that it has to be “roughly” proportionate to standings in the House, that doesn’t mean that the Conservatives will be automatically assured of an additional seat just because the math may work out in the government’s favour.

Back in 2004, when Paul Martin became the first prime minister to preside over a minority government in over two decades, they – the government and the opposition parties – managed to work out a mutually acceptable formula for committee membership before the newly reconstituted Commons had even held its first meeting by reducing the size from sixteen seats — of which the government had held nine — to twelve: five government members on one side of the table, and on the other, four from the Official Opposition, two from the Bloc Quebecois, and just one from the NDP.

When the Conservatives took power the next year, the same formula was used to divvy up the available committee slots; even though the Conservatives came back with a smaller minority – 123 seats to 135 held by Martin – the government still got a full five seats – one vote shy of a majority, but able to win a vote with the support of just one opposition member.

If they really have their hearts set on having a sixth seat at committee, then, the government will have to persuade the rest of the House that they can be trusted with even strictly limited majority power without running roughshod over the opposition, which would be a tough sell under even the most harmonious of minority parliaments, but is likely to be nearly impossible in this one.