A Look Towards the House of Commons Standing Committees

Kristina Proulx, Director

All eyes are focused on Tuesday’s Cabinet announcement, the return to Parliament, and the various political machinations that follow, including a Speech from the Throne and possibly even a Fall Economic Statement.  While we will be following all of this carefully, it’s also time to start considering another essential tool of Parliament – the House of Commons Standing Committees.

After the 2019 Federal Election, it took only a few sitting days for a motion to be tabled in the House detailing the Standing Orders for Committees, a procedural item required to get them up and running, which details how many members can sit on each Committee. Quickly afterwards, motions were tabled requesting Party Whips deposit with the Clerk of the House the list of their party’s members for each by a certain date (although due to the late start, with Parliament only officially resuming for a week and a half before the holiday break, full lists were only available the first week of February).

If the November 22 return of Parliament is any similar to 2019, we can anticipate that we might see Committee members being appointed before the holiday break. However, we will likely have to wait until the New Year to see Committee’s hold their organization meetings, where Chairs and Co-Chairs are elected, and the Committee agrees as to the rules of how it will govern itself (such as how the order of parties for questioning witnesses), as well as its agenda. After this, Committees tend to get up and running relatively quickly, briefing from Ministers on their respective mandate letters, the launching of studies, and more.

For those unfamiliar with the Standing Committees, they allow for the studying, in small groups of Members of Parliament, of departmental spending, legislation, and issues related to their respective mandates. Currently, there are 30 and cover a wide range of topics, from Health to Official Languages, Natural Resources to Fisheries and Oceans. In this session of Parliament, we will see the introduction of one new Committee – the Standing Committee on Science and Research, as a result of a motion that passed unanimously in the spring.

It is worth noting that with few exceptions (the Standing Committees on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics; Government Operations and Estimates; Public Accounts; Status of Women; and the Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations), Committee Chairs will be held by the governing party (Liberal), with the Opposition taking Vice-Chair roles (specifically, the Conservative Party and the Bloc Quebecois).

Something else to watch out for is the creation of Special Committees. For example, the last session of Parliament saw the creation of a Special Committee on the Economic Relationship between Canada and the United States. Special Committees are appointed by the House to carry out specific inquiries, and cease to exist once a final report has been presented. These Committees are only created by means of an order of reference adopted in the House of Commons.

What does this mean for government relations?

Not only do these Committees provide for in-depth study of legislation, policies and programs, but they also offer an excellent opportunity for stakeholders to appear before Members of Parliament to voice their thoughts and concerns on the record. These Committees have considerable power, with the ability to provide reports with recommendations to the House and Government, require the attendance of persons to testify before them (subject to the approval of the House), and to require the production of documents. They are free to initiate any study within the realm of their respective mandates.

While they are still relatively quiet and without legislation before them, early winter also offers a good time to pitch studies to Committees for their consideration. The trick here is to raise something well within the Committee’s mandate and broad enough that a variety of stakeholders would want to participate in the study. This can be an excellent way to get Parliamentary attention to your organization’s work or the challenges your industry is facing.

In a minority Parliament, as we have now, Committees also provide the Opposition with means to compel the Government to act. In the last session of Parliament, Opposition Members frequently joined together. They utilized the powers of Committee to force studies, approve motions compelling the disclosure of documents, and require government officials to appear before them. We are likely to see more of the same this session.

One Committee to watch in particular is the Standing Committee on Finance. Having completed its 2022 Federal Pre-Budget call for submissions in August, before the Federal Election, the Committee is likely to launch its consultations, allowing submissions from the previous session of Parliament to be included. After the 2019 Federal Election, the Standing Committee on Finance invited witnesses to appear on its study only a week after its first organization meeting and only heard from stakeholders over four days. In a typical, non-Election year, we would usually see at least a couple of weeks of cross-country consultations.

One key development to watch out for early in the session is the election of the Standing Committee on Finance Chair.  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, as the role requires a distinct ability to manage all parties.

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