Messaging, Partisanship and Politics: Discourse in Standing Committees in a Minority Parliament
Valere Gaspard is a graduate student at the University of Ottawa, a research fellow at Western University’s Leadership and Democracy Lab, and an alumnus of the Parliamentary Internship Programme (2020-2021). This is a revised version of the essay he wrote as part of his internship.
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.
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 public9 – 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 Québécois (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 permanent campaign in Canada, and how during a minority Parliament decisions are more often based on partisan reasoning,15 the first hypothesis supposes ‘standing committees during a minority Parliament will demonstrate instances of partisanship from all political parties.’ The second hypothesis of this paper suggests ‘partisanship in standing committees during a minority Parliament is negatively impacting the efficiency of committees, their work and cross-party relationships on those committees’. These hypotheses are rooted in findings from the literature that partisanship has impacted the effectiveness of committees16 and evidence which demonstrates that committee membership in Canada may be organized by political parties based on electoral or partisan needs.17 If members of committees were chosen by their political parties for reasons that were not related to partisanship (for example, being interested or having expertise in the subject being covered by the standing committee), then this hypothesis would have less support from past literature. To test these hypotheses, I utilize both quantitative and qualitative datasets.
The quantitative data used was collected from two standing committees: the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates (OGGO) and the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans (FOPO). These committees were chosen at random from the 24 standing committees during the 2nd Session of the 43rd Parliament. The data consists of the number of instances of partisan discourse that took place during each committee from September 23rd, 2020 (the beginning of the 2nd Session of the 43rd Parliament) up until the final committee meeting that took place in 2020. Instances of partisan discourse consisted of any time a member on a committee referred to a political party or an upcoming election. Five types of codes (Figure 1) were used to divide the types of statements made by the members of each committee. The first code is “context for proceedings”, which consists of a committee member using the name of a political party to contextualize something on committee; for example, saying that a member from ‘X party’ will have the floor to speak. The second code is “boasting”, which consists of a member of a committee speaking positively about their own political party or its accomplishments. The third code is “malicious”, which is when a member of a committee is speaking negatively about the political party of another member or is attacking another political party. The fourth code is “mention of an election”, which is simply referring to the prospect of an election or any partisan actions that can be taken during a future election. The final code is “praise or lowering tensions” which is when a member of committee compliments another member from a different political party by making direct reference to their party, or by attempting to diffuse any partisan debates that are occurring during committee proceedings.
While this way of measuring partisanship is narrower – since it does not account for potential partisan ‘talking points’ from each political party – it was adopted to try and best limit subjectivity or bias that could occur during the collection of the data. Since the data was being collected from the evidence section of each committee meeting (which consists of transcripts of the meetings)18 it would be up to the author to differentiate what consists of partisan discourse or an argument that is relevant to the work of the committee. Therefore, the coding system listed in the previous paragraph was utilized, to limit this kind of subjectivity from impacting the quantitative dataset. The results of the quantitative data can be seen in Figures 2, 3 and 4.
The qualitative dataset consists of interviews with MPs from each of the four recognized parties in the House of Commons (LPC, CPC, BQ and NDP).19 One MP from each of the listed political parties were interviewed but their identities have been kept anonymous. This was a decision made by the interviewer to limit any kind of vulnerability or harm that could be caused by participating in the interview.
To interpret the interviews of each of the MPs and to provide common ‘themes’ from the four interviews, a specific phenomenological approach was utilized. This approach emphasizes the use of nodes found within the interviews, to help create themes. The process begins by reading all the transcripts of the interviews that took place. After the initial reading, each transcript is read again, and each line of every transcript is assigned a node. This is done as a confirmation-procedure, to ensure that while the text is being repeatedly examined, “the phenomenon as a whole remains the same.”20 After assigning a node to each line of every transcript, the nodes are examined collectively to create themes. By basing the themes off the nodes – instead of attempting to fit the text into preconceived themes – it permits the qualitative evidence to be “viewed as something that shows itself”.21 This allows for “the investigator [to abstain] from making suppositions”22 about the topic, and to focus on the subjectivity that comes with the experiences of each MP that was interviewed. Doing this also fits in well with discursive institutionalism, since both the phenomenological approach of examining the data and the theoretical lens emphasize the ideas being communicated by the actors within the institution.
As shown in Figure 5, there are five themes that appeared from the nodes: partisanship, control, strategy, efficiency, and collaboration. Under each theme is a sentence that summarizes common experiences that were expressed during the interviews, which help to describe each of the themes. The nodes included in Figure 5 were the types of sentiments or statements that helped to shape the five listed themes.
In this discussion, first the quantitative results will be explained to see if they prove or disprove the two hypotheses proposed in the methodology section of the paper, and to explore how they may impact the literature on standing committees. The analysis will occur for the qualitative results. Finally, some recommendations of future research will be provided based on to the findings.
Partisan incidents were recorded for each of the four recognized political parties in both committees. Apart from the LPC, which had the same number of partisan incidents during both the OGGO and FOPO committees, each political party had more recorded partisan incidents during the OGGO committee. Through a discursive institutionalist lens, this could be interpreted as the members of that committee having a more partisan idea or understanding of committees; thus, Members behaved with more partisanship in reaction to one another. Even though OGGO reviews the government’s appropriations – making it a topic that could quickly become partisan – it should be noted that a MP can be critical of government decisions without being partisan and criticizing the party of the government (consistent with this paper’s definition of partisanship). Another trend that should be considered is that the BQ scored significantly lower than the other three political parties during both committees. As shown in Figure 4, a total of six types of incidents were recorded for the BQ during both committees, while the second lowest score is 31 with the LPC. Since no literature on standing committees alluding to why specific political parties may behave in a partisan manner on committees was found, this topic may be worth exploring further. One potential answer could be that due to the ideology of the BQ – working exclusively for the interests of Québec23 – its members may have fewer opportunities to express partisanship since the work of committees also focus on policy issues taking place outside of Québec. However, it is also possible that the members of the BQ that participated on those committees could have just been less partisan than other members of their party. Studying behaviour of Members on additional committees could provide evidence for a more conclusive answer. Based on this information, it seems that the first hypothesis, that there will be instances of partisanship from all political parties in standing committees during a minority Parliament, could be confirmed, since all political parties did technically demonstrate some instances of partisanship. However, the low level of partisanship demonstrated by BQ Members suggests the first hypothesis should be considered only partially proven by the quantitative data.
From the types of partisan incidents that were coded (see Figure 1 and Figure 4), the highest number of incidents were under the “malicious” (Type 3) category with a total of 51 incidents out of the 117 that took place; this amounts to approximately 43.6 per cent of the total. The second highest number of incidents were under “context for proceedings” (Type 1) category with a total of 37 out of the 117, which is approximately 31.6 per cent. In third place, the “boasting” incidents (Type 2) consisted of a total of 16 out of 117, which is about 13.7 per cent. Next, the “mention of an election” incidents (Type 4) accounts for 9 out of 117, or about 7.7 per cent of the total. Finally, the “praise or lowering tensions” category (Type 5) only consists of 4 out of the 117 incidents, or 3.4 per cent. Based on these results, many partisan instances during standing committees consist of targeting Members from other political parties. This latter finding would seem to suggest that Members from different political parties may not work as well together during a minority Parliament as they might otherwise. These findings would slightly contrast with some parts of the literature, which suggests that Members from different political parties can work together to overcome partisan disagreements.24 Members making ‘malicious’ statements towards one another in a partisan manner does not necessarily mean that the Members are not getting committee work done together. However, these statements do fill committee time and are likely part of the broader permanent campaign in Canada. Since committees as a public resource25 are being used as a platform to make partisan statements, it seems that part of my second hypothesis – that partisanship in standing committees is negatively impacting the efficiency and work of committees – is confirmed. While it may seem that overt partisanship – especially the type of partisanship that targets other Members and their parties in statements – would negatively impact cross-party relationships, more evidence in support of this hypothesis in the qualitative section of this article would strengthen this confirmation. MPs can best speak to their relationships with other MPs. Therefore, while the quantitative data suggests that cross-party relationships on committees may be negatively impacted, it does not completely confirm it.
Based on the nodes collected for Figure 5, the following five themes arose from the MP interviews: partisanship, control, strategy, efficiency, and collaboration. Under the partisanship theme, MPs expressed experiences and thoughts about seeing partisanship during committees but having the desire to reduce it for the sake of efficiency. This helps to further confirm the first hypothesis, since both the quantitative data and the experiences of the MPs who were interviewed allude to the notion that there is partisanship during committees. For the second theme of control, there were expressions that referred to how the operations of committees may change depending on whether there is a minority or majority Parliament. This finding demonstrates how the phenomenological approach that was taken to understand these interviews was helpful. If the data was placed into preconceived themes, the idea of control would have fallen outside the scope of partisanship and partisan discourse. Overall, it seems that the group dynamics (how MPs interact with one another) and the procedures of committees during a minority Parliament, are used to fulfil partisan purposes. This finding helps to confirm parts of the second hypothesis. If procedures are being used to derail committee for partisan purposes, partisanship is impacting the efficiency and work of committees.
The strategy theme further helps to confirm parts of the second hypothesis. Part of the experiences around strategizing on committee consisted of creating a narrative on committee to help serve partisan goals, as well as strategically listening to what other Members may wish to accomplish, to ensure your own goals can be accomplished. This idea of strategizing with others would be consistent with the portions of the literature on standing committees that refer to backroom deals happening during a minority Parliament.26 There have also been cases – outside of the examined committee periods – that demonstrate how members of a committee may treat witnesses differently to help support a narrative they are trying to create.27 In addition to further confirming the first hypothesis, these findings once again help to demonstrate that the efficiency and work of committees are being negatively impacted by partisanship. Ironically, the fourth theme – ‘efficiency’ – demonstrates that there is a desire from members to be more efficient and a shared frustration about the inefficiency caused by partisanship. Through the lens of discursive intuitionalism, it seems that MPs have a common issue with the efficiency of committees but seem to believe that it is members from other parties that are causing the problem. Since the discursive institutionalist lens assumes that institutions are also defined based on how ideas are communicated within the structure being examined, it may be worth further exploring if this communication between MPs is taking place.
The final theme of collaboration demonstrates that MPs have a desire to work with MPs from different political parties and value their ideas. However, working with other MPs and reducing partisanship may be more difficult when MPs are not attending in-person committee meetings. It was easier for MPs from different political parties to have informal conversations and foster inter-party friendships during pre-pandemic times.28 Therefore, while partisanship does negatively impact cross-party relations in standing committees – thus confirming the final part of the second hypothesis – improvement is possible. It may be as simple as giving MPs from different political parties more opportunities to communicate about their perceptions of committees or allowing for more informal collaborations.
Recommendations for Future Research
Since this analysis looked at the partisan instances of members of the four recognized political parties and did not delve into the motivations of the individual political parties during committees, it would be worth exploring how each political party interprets the role of partisanship in committee and if (and how) MPs from different parties communicate with one and other about partisanship on committee. Research into these topics could assist in providing answers as to why members of committee are behaving in a partisan manner.29 Finally, examining whether being partisan on committee or utilizing committee time to accomplish more policy goals is a better value to MPs should also be considered in future studies.
Partisan discourse has an impact on the operations of House of Commons standing committees during minority Parliaments. Using a discursive institutionalist lens and quantitative and qualitative data, I confirmed two working hypotheses. First, standing committees during a minority Parliament will demonstrate instances of partisanship from all political parties and, second, partisanship in standing committees is negatively impacting the efficiency of committees, their work and cross-party relationships on those committees.
Interviews with MPs from all recognized parties suggest there is a desire to improve the efficacy of committees and the collegiality among their members. Determining how best to balance the political and partisan goals of these MPs and their parties with the necessary environment for productive committee work will need to be considered for this desire to become reality.
1 Michael Rush, “Parliamentary Committees and Parliamentary Government: The British and Canadian Experience,” Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 20, no. 2 (1982): 146, DOI:10.1080/14662048208447404.
2 ibid, 149.
3 Josie Schofield and Jonathan Fershau, “Committees inside Canadian Legislatures,” in Policy analysis in Canada: the state of the art, ed. Laurent Dobuzinskis, David H. Laycock and Michael Howlett (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 354. https://bit.ly/3x9uyE4.
4 B. Guy Peters, Institutional Theory in Political Science – The New Institutionalism, 3rd Edition (London: The Continuum Publishing Group, 2012), 112.
5 ibid, 113.
6 ibid, 112-13.
7 ibid, 114.
8 Vivien A. Schmidt, “Taking ideas and discourse seriously: explaining change through discursive institutionalism as the fourth ‘new institutionalism’,” European Political Science Review 2, no. 1 (2010): 1, https://bit.ly/3h0DeXy.
9 Vivien A. Schmidt, “Discursive Institutionalism: The Explanatory Power of Ideas and Discourse,” Annual Review of Political Science 11, (2008): 303, 10.1146/annurev.polisci.11.060606.135342.
10 To review a complete summary of the history of committees and a literature review that helped to inform this research and for the extended version of this paper, please see: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/355038042_Messaging_Partisanship_and_Politics_-_Discourse_in_Standing_Committees_in_a_Minority_Parliament_Valere_Gaspard_Full_Version
12 Alex Marland, Thierry Giasson and Anna Lennox Esselment, “Welcome to Non-Stop Campaigning,” ed. Alex Marland, Anna Lennox Esselment and Thierry Giasson, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017), 5.
13 Jonathan White and Lea Ypi, The Meaning of Partisanship, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 3.
14 Parliament of Canada, Canada Elections Act, Section, 2(1) (Ottawa: Parliament of Canada, 2019). https://bit.ly/3x51mhd.
15 Chuck Strahl, “Politics and Procedure in a Minority Parliament,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, (2004-05): 7, https://bit.ly/3x8p7Fe.
16 Jonathan Malloy, “An auditor’s best friend? Standing committees on public accounts,” Canadian Public Administration / Administration publique du Canada 47, no. 2 (2004): 177, https://bit.ly/3w2KBSC.
17 Christopher Raymond and Jacob Holt. “Due North? Do American Theories of Legislative Committees Apply to Canada?” The Journal of Legislative Studies 20, no. 2 (2014): 175, https://bit.ly/3hh7oVk.
19 House of Commons, Party Standings in the House of Commons, (Ottawa: Parliament of Canada, 2021), https://bit.ly/3hlGdsK.
20 Clark Moustakas, Phenomenology and Human Science Inquiry (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 1994), 5.
22 ibid, 4.
23 Bloc Québécois, Le Québec, c’est nous, (Montreal: Bloc Québécois, 2019), https://bit.ly/2T70xpD.
24 Jonathan Malloy, “An auditor’s best friend? Standing committees on public accounts,” Canadian Public Administration / Administration publique du Canada 47, no. 2 (2004): 177, https://bit.ly/3w2KBSC.
25 Alex Marland, Thierry Giasson and Anna Lennox Esselment, “Welcome to Non-Stop Campaigning,” ed. Alex Marland, Anna Lennox Esselment and Thierry Giasson, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017), 5.
26 Chuck Strahl, “Politics and Procedure in a Minority Parliament,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, (2004-05): 7, https://bit.ly/3x8p7Fe.
27 Kevin Lynch and Paul Deegan, “Our parliamentary committees should operate better, especially now,” Hill Times, June 10, 2021, https://bit.ly/3h22AnM.
28 Valere Gaspard and Joshua Swift, “For parliamentary interns, a lesson in the importance of institutional flexibility,” Hill Times, November 18, 2020, https://bit.ly/3y0drV6.
29 B. Guy Peters, Institutional Theory in Political Science – The New Institutionalism, 3rd Edition (London: The Continuum Publishing Group, 2012), 112.