He who controls committees controls the world. (Or the House of Commons, at least.)

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: despite all those headlines and editorials that have flourished in the aftermath of this week’s election, there is no such thing as a “strengthened minority” – not in terms of parliamentary power, at least. As long as the government can’t win a vote without the support of at least one opposition party, a beefed-up Conservative caucus does little to boost Stephen Harper’s ability to control the agenda of the House of Commons. Beyond giving the PM a more impressive backdrop of devoted followers during Question Period, and possibly providing him with a few more options for future cabinet construction, twenty new members – or, if you go by the count at dissolution, sixteen more MPs than he had when the House rose in June – will have no impact on the workings of the House.

But when it comes to House committees – which, as ITQ readers will recall, was ground zero for the  parliamentary dysfunction that ostensibly forced the PM to circumvent his own fixed election date law – it may be a very different story, because with 143 members, the Conservatives now hold 46.4% of the seats in the Commons, which they may be hoping to translate into one more seat around the committee table, which could dramatically change the dynamics on one key committee.

First, a little background: Committee membership isn’t set in stone, but is “roughly proportional to the party standings in the House”, according to the “Practical Guide for Committees” found on the parliamentary website.

During the last parliament, committees were comprised of five members of the government, and seven from the opposition – four Liberals, two Bloc Quebecois and one NDP.

On committees chaired by the government – which, during the last parliament, was all but but four: Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics; Status of Women; Government Operations and Estimates, and Public Accounts (which is always chaired by an opposition MP, even in a majority situation) – nothing would change, practically speaking, by taking one seat from the opposition and giving it to the government: The opposition would have six votes total, with just five for the government, since the chair would vote only to break a tie – or, alternately, storm out of the room in classic Art Hanger style, leaving the committee in procedural paralysis.

But on opposition-chaired committees, the Conservatives would suddenly hold a limited – but functioning – majority.

Remember the Mulroney-Schreiber inquiry last fall, and the special week-long summer sittings to investigate In and Out? If the government had been able to control the Ethics committee back then, the motions to hold those hearings would been dead on arrival – no Conservative stonewalling or dirty tricks manual required.

So how have past minority parliaments dealt with different sizes of minorities in allocating committee seats?  Funny you should ask – because that’s how I spent yesterday afternoon – tallying up the numbers using old committee membership lists – and a big ITQ thank you to the Library of Parliament researcher who figured out where such arcane bits of history could be found.  For consistency – and maybe a tiny bit of irony that only an ITQ devotee would appreciate – I picked Procedure and House Affairs as my control committee. Here’s what I was able to put together:

1962 – John Diefenbaker held 116 seats out of 265 (43.7%)

Standing Orders Committee – 20 members total

Government: 9 seats; Opposition: 11 seats (Liberals: 8 Social Credit: 2 NDP: 1)

1979 – Joe Clark – 136 seats out of 282 (48.2%)

Procedure and Organization Committee – 12 members total

Government: 7 seats; Opposition: 5 seats (Liberals: 4 NDP: 1)

2004 – Paul Martin – 135 seats out of 308 (43.8%)

Procedure and House Affairs – 12 members total

Government: 5 seats; Opposition: 7 seats (Conservatives: 4 Bloc Quebecois: 2 NDP: 1)

2006 – Stephen Harper – 124 seats out of 308 (40.2%)

Procedure and House Affairs – 12 members total

Government: 5 seats; Opposition: 7 seats (Liberals: 4 Bloc Quebecois: 2 NDP: 1)

Notice that only once has a minority government held the majority of votes at committee – the Conservatives, in 1979, which – under Joe Clark – controlled 48.2% of the seats in the House. Was this an anomaly, reached not through the standard formula but an informal agreement between the parties? Or was it the result of rounding the percentage up to an even 50%? If that’s the case, would the Conservatives be able to persuade the House to do the same for a government that holds 143 out of 308 seats, which works out to 46.4%?

Should a minority government ever be granted de facto majority status, even in a limited capacity? It would seem that the fifty percent threshold should be absolute – no matter how close you may be to that magic number of seats, if you can’t command a majority in the House, you don’t get to do so at committee, even if your numbers go up, and those of the opposition go down. It’s also worth pointing out that, with the exception of Public Accounts, there is nothing in the Standing Orders that sets out which  – if any – committees will be chaired by an opposition MP; last time around, the opposition parties lobbied for the committees that they got, but if the balance of power shifts to the Conservatives in those cases, that may change.

I’ve put in calls to the committees directorate, as well as the Speaker’s Office, and I’ll update this post when and if I get a definitive – or even tentative – answer, but one thing is for sure: the next skirmish in the running battle for control of the parliamentary agenda may well start where the last one ended – not in the Commons, but on the committee room floor.

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