Parliamentary Opposition, in Theory

Westminster definitions seem increasingly at odds with real Canadian politics.

The general election of 2011 saw major changes in Canada’s electoral politics. One, of course, was the establishment, for the first time ever, of the NDP as the Official Opposition. Many saw this as much bigger news, with more long-term import for Canada, than the fact that the same election produced a Conservative majority. The NDP had moved from being the country’s “conscience” to being considered a real potential for government.

But the shift in who held the mantle of Official Opposition in 2011 did not change the role of opposition in its relationship with government. Indeed, the process worked as it was supposed to. A member of Parliament was elected in each riding; the leader of the party that elected the most MPs became prime minister, and the party with the next number of elected MPs became the Official Opposition. It is the process we have had since Confederation. We have probably seen more drastic swings and position changes within parties over Canada’s history than the election of a different party into front-line play for the first time.

What has changed, not just in 2011 but over decades, is the role the Opposition plays in Parliament, how people perceive that role, and what those changes may mean to how Canada is governed.

In Across the Aisle: Opposition in Canadian Politics, David E. Smith provides a detailed and thorough history of legislative opposition in Canada. He does an excellent job documenting changes and related developments in the concept of both parliamentary and public opposition since Confederation, and provides a thoughtful analysis of the many and varied reasons behind those changes.

Smith is clearly concerned about the state of democracy in Canada. He starts his book with: “To say that the public is disillusioned with Parliament is to state a commonplace.” He refers to the criticism of many things—party discipline, our electoral system and prime ministerial control of Cabinet, Parliament and the public service—as all contributing to Canadians’ disillusionment with their politics. He is worried about “what appears to be a serious imbalance in the arrangement and practice of Canadian public institutions.”

He acknowledges, however, that these questions are too much for one book, so he has concentrated on the role of opposition in Parliament. Although only one piece of the larger democratic deficit challenge, it deserves the focus that Smith has provided. Certainly, as a history book, describing the evolution and present condition of legislative opposition, and analyzing the whys and wherefores of opposition parties and opposition behaviour in Canada, it fulfils its goals.

Smith does a particularly good job highlighting how Canada, having inherited the Westminster parliamentary democracy model, has had to adapt to the challenges of regionalism and diversity, the likes of which England has never had to deal with. Canada has been a far more complex country to govern. A structure built on the assumptions of a two-party system has not always been the most effective in dealing with Canada’s regional, cultural and linguistic diversity. It is interesting to consider how we have adapted, where it has worked and where it has not.

Ironically, however, rather than use the Canadian examples to illustrate how the role of opposition in Canada does not fit into a neat parliamentary theory, Smith simply bemoans that fact, suggests that we have lost our way, and argues that we need to get back to a clearer understanding of what the role of legislative opposition is supposed to be. This is, frankly, somewhat of a disappointment.

Smith starts with the thesis that “government and opposition are parts of a shared community—Parliament.” He makes clear his belief, consistent with the accepted political theory applicable to our Westminster-based system, that Parliament is, or should be, supreme; that elected members, regardless of party or what they believe are the wishes of their constituents, owe their primary allegiance to Parliament, based on the oath of allegiance that all MPs must take to the sovereign, which includes allegiance to the institutions that the sovereign represents, Parliament in particular. Implicit in this oath is the assumption that in any conflict between popular opinions held by one’s own electors and the integrity of the parliamentary system, the latter must apply. In the Canadian version of the Westminster system, where the role of legislators often includes finding ways to resolve diverse regional interests, this explicit mandate is no mere formality. Smith discusses at some length the question of the MP’s mandate, arguing that “there is no constituent power outside of Parliament” and that “central to refuting the mandate argument is the fact that the source of executive power provided for in the Constitution Act, 1867, rests not in representation, and thus the people, as found in the Constitution of the United States, but rather in the Sovereign.” He worries that the system does not function properly when members of Parliament believe that they represent their constituents rather than being their delegate. MPs should not be “controlled” by their constituents, because they have a higher calling and obligation and allegiance to Parliament. He is clearly concerned that “developments in Canadian politics over the past two decades have undermined” that bond of common allegiance that is supposed to exist between government and opposition.

Smith proceeds to provide a clear description of how, over Canada’s history, the different opposition parties have been formed, died off, been replaced, replaced others and sometimes, of course, become government and moved across the floor. However, even if he is correct in theory, his own descriptions demonstrate that the real-life human participants do not behave according to a set of parliamentary rules established long ago for a very different society. Economic and international upheavals, times of war or crises of national unity causing cooperation among erstwhile opponents, disagreements at other times charged by strong personalities, the roles of special interest groups and regional dynamics thanks to our wide and diverse geography, cultural differences and politically open federation—all have contributed, sometimes in isolation, sometimes in combination, to making the role of opposition in Canada far less clear-cut and much more complex than anything seen in England.

Smith gives several examples of where opposition has taken positions that were based not on an allegiance to Parliament, but rather on the goal of advancing specific interests. Two of the clearest and most striking of these are the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois. Each of these was a protest party, but also served for a while in Parliament as the Official Opposition. The Reform Party was born partly of regional concerns (“the West wants in”) and strong views that there was too much power at the “centre” and not enough in the people. The Bloc Québécois was clearly never of the view that Parliament was supreme—quite the opposite. It never behaved as opposition as government-in-waiting. Many federalists conceded the fact that Bloc MPs were elected, in each case, by a majority of Canadian citizens in their respective ridings. This was, at least, democracy in all its -disconcerting messiness at work. But it certainly challenged traditional theories of legislative opposition in a Westminster model.

The Westminster model in England—still essentially a two-party system where one party or the other forms government, switching sides occasionally—and Canada’s model, which has had Reform, Bloc, Green and, until recently, the NDP as protest parties, not expecting to form government, are clearly very different. These legislative opposition parties in Canada have seen their roles and responsibilities in government as quite different than the traditional ones—roles not bound by theories of primary allegiance to Parliament. But rather than embrace their behaviour as indicating a uniquely Canadian experience of opposition, Smith seems to rail against it as contravening political theory.

And there is another problem with his analysis. There has been a twist in the theoretical discussion in recent years in that there is so much more “unofficial” opposition to government in the public sphere today. There are many more players: what Smith terms “social movements,” and mass communication and social media allowing the instantaneous dispersal of ideas, positions—and anger. Regardless of parliamentary theory, it is clear that there has also been a shift from legislative to public opposition, from the House of Commons to the street.

Within the walls of Parliament, however, the challenge remains the same—how can opposition, legislative or otherwise, provide the necessary corrective checks and balances? If anything, there is increased concern about lack of accountability, lack of transparency, prime ministerial control over Parliament, Cabinet and the public service, and an unprecedented level of executive control (except perhaps in wartime) that has steadily increased over time, across different parties, heightened now by having majority government in the House of Commons combined with a majority in the Senate. The current Harper government is extremely powerful.

Canada’s unique situation calls for unique solutions to provide better counterbalances to such concentration of power. Unfortunately, Smith seems to want to get “back” to a place we left a long time ago. He suggests that “lack of understanding of parliamentary opposition, whether it occurs in government, among MPs, or with the public, presents a serious challenge for the achievement of responsible and responsive government in Canada.” He then concludes, rather depressingly, that “resolution of the predicament depends upon clarifying the source of constituent power—is it, in short, where all theories of parliamentary government say it is, the Crown-in-Parliament? If it is elsewhere, that must be unequivocally stated and agreed to. Otherwise, Canada is faced with a constitution embracing irreconcilable principles as they affect the House of Commons: members owing fidelity to their respective constituents, or to their sovereign—it cannot be both.”

The problem is that the underlying premise Smith is articulating here does not reflect the real world of Canadian politics. By far the majority of MPs, and most Canadian voters, would be shocked (and dismayed) if told that MPs owe their fidelity to their sovereign, or Parliament, instead of to their constituents. This mindset may not fit parliamentary theory, but it is how most Canadians see it.

There is room for much more debate on what the role of opposition MPs actually is: Only to oppose? To assist in creating better legislation via committee work? To follow party discipline regardless of personal views? Debating these questions could fill an entire book on its own, and they are not questions that Smith addresses here.

If legislative opposition, which according to Smith is the “political corrective to concentrated power that the system already provides,” is no longer adequate—regardless of theory—then what? We should embrace the uniquely Canadian evolution of “opposition” and find the best ways currently available to provide that balancing corrective. It is possible that the more sources of non-legislative, public opposition there are and the more varied they are, the more effectively a government can be held to account. If government is too controlling, too opaque and not responsive enough to issues raised in public, the next election allows the public to respond. It may not happen as quickly as some would like, but as Churchill famously noted, democracy is not perfect, but it is the best of the available options. Yes, the power of the media, particularly when concentrated, and the power of certain special interest groups can, in their own right, be problematic. But the challenges of a democratic deficit are real, not simply academic—and academic theories sometimes underestimate human adaptability.

We are fortunate in Canada to have relatively open media, providing more communication opportunities. The give and take of social media increasingly allows the voices of a variety of public interest groups and individuals to be heard and their issues to be debated publicly. The opportunity that technology provides for more engagement, over and above just voting, may—we hope—result in a greater level of accountability in government, even if the role of official legislative opposition is diminished—theoretically or otherwise.