Messaging, Partisanship and Politics: Discourse in Standing Committees in a Minority Parliament.

AuthorGaspard, Valere

This article explores whether partisan discourse is used to impact the operations of House of Commons standing committees, during a minority Parliament. Using a discursive institutionalist lens, this paper tests two hypotheses. First, whether instances of partisanship are demonstrated by all political parties in standing committees during a minority Parliament. Second, whether partisanship in standing committees during a minority Parliament negatively impacts the efficiency of committees, their work and cross-party relationships on those committees. Analysis through a discursive institutionalist lens of quantitative data from two standing committees during the 2nd Session of the 43rd Parliament and qualitative data from interviews with Members of Parliament from each of the four recognized political parties, confirms both hypotheses. These findings suggest that further research should be conducted to continue to develop the literature on partisanship in standing committees.


House of Commons committees have had varying levels of importance throughout Canadian history. When the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867, a wide range of committees were established, but they were not integral to parliamentary business. (1) While of lesser importance at the beginning of the federation, House of Commons standing committees in Canada underwent various changes until 1965, when noticeable steps to implement major reforms to these committees were underway. After reforms implemented in 1968, standing committees were considered "an integral part of the work of the [House of Commons]". (2) Despite becoming more integral to the work of the House, researchers note that committees require additional scholarly attention. (3) To contribute to this field of study, this article explores the following question: is partisan discourse used to impact the operations of House of Commons standing committees, during a minority Parliament?

To answer this question, this article is divided into four sections. First, I define the discursive intuitionalism lens that will be used to frame the remainder of the paper and provides a brief history of committees. Next, I define partisanship and partisan discourse. I then review the methodology and results of the research, including both quantitative data collected from the proceedings of two committees, as well as qualitative data from interviews with Members of Parliament (MPs). Last, I analyze the results and explain some possible implications of the findings, along with suggestions for future studies to expand the knowledge in this field.

Theoretical Framework

To examine the discourse that occurs in committees during a minority Parliament, the paper utilizes a discursive institutionalist lens. Discursive institutionalism assumes that institutions are defined by ideas and the way these ideas are communicated within the structure being examined. (4) It differs from normative institutionalism, which emphasizes defining appropriate behaviours within an institution, while discursive intuitionalism focuses on the ideas and goals that the institution pursues. (5) While other forms of institutionalism focus on formal structures and hierarchy, discursive intuitionalism emphasizes the ideas that are held by the members of the institution. (6) The theory also presupposes that institutions emerge from the interactions of its members and its associated organizations, instead of assuming that there are established organizational structures. (7)

Discursive institutionalism also provides insights into the dynamics surrounding institutional changes, since it can help to explain the preferences, normative orientations, and strategies of actors. (8) Furthermore, by focusing on forms of discourse--specifically coordinative discourse between other policy actors and communicative discourse between an elected official and the public (9)--it may clarify why MPs within the current parliamentary committee system display more instances of partisanship.

History of Committees

While the Canadian House of Commons has several types of committees, this paper focuses specifically on standing committees. (10) A change that is central to understanding the findings of this paper occurred in 1991 when committees began to broadcast their proceedings. (11) While this made committees more accessible to the public, it may have also contributed to the development of the "permanent campaign" in Canada, by giving MPs additional opportunities to receive public coverage. Although not directly related to the progression of committees, this development is important to consider when discussing partisan discourse during committees, since the permanent campaign consists of maximizing all available resources and utilizing public resources to achieve electoral goals. (12)

Definition of Partisanship

Prior to explaining the methodology used to measure partisan discourse between MPs and their perception of partisanship in standing committees in Canada, it is important to clearly define partisanship. While some have defined partisanship as the active commitment of persuading others through an appeal to reason to share their views, (13) I employ a more simple and narrow definition, to try to minimize subjectivity in the collection and analysis of data. As a result, I define partisanship in accordance with the Canada Elections Act. While the Act does not provide a direct definition of partisanship, it defines partisan advertising as "an advertising message that promotes or opposes a registered party or eligible party or the election of a potential candidate, nomination contestant or leader of a registered party or eligible party, otherwise than by taking a position on an issue with which any such party or person is associated." (14) From this definition, partisanship will be considered the promotion or opposition of any of the four official political parties (the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC), the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), the Bloc Quebecois (BQ) or the New Democratic Party (NDP)), during the proceedings of House of Commons standing committees. Based on this definition of partisanship, partisan discourse in standing committees will consist of promoting or opposing one or more of these political parties, during standing committee proceedings.


The existing literature on standing committees in the House of Commons and minority Parliaments in Canada, helped to inform two proposed hypotheses. Based on the...

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