Not Both Sides

House of Commons

When it was announced last week that the government’s delegation to Kyiv to meet with the new Ukrainian leadership would contain Conservatives only, Power Play host Don Martin made the cardinal sin of saying that “government is both sides.”

No.  In no way, shape or form in a Westminster democracy is government “both sides.”  Our system is such that the government is formed of the Prime Minister and cabinet, who are drawn from the ranks of the legislature whom they are responsible to.  And it’s Parliament’s job as a whole, both government and opposition sides, Commons and Senate, to hold that government in check.  The way they do that is to control supply – the public purse.  Government shouldn’t be able to do anything until Parliament approves the use of funds to do it.

Of course, in that very same exchange with Don Martin, Conservative MP James Bezan, who was on the trip, erred when he called it a “government delegation.”  If it were an actual government delegation, it would only include cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats.  Unless Bezan and fellow MP Ted Opitz had been elevated to cabinet, then it wasn’t actually a government delegation either.  And no, being a Parliamentary Secretary doesn’t count.

It has been stated in the days since that it would have made for a stronger delegation if members of other parties had been included, and it’s true.  But we must also not forget that the opposition has a role to play in these kinds of situations, which is to actually oppose – offering constructive criticism as to ways in which the government could or should act in these kinds of situations.  Constructive criticism is not disloyalty, and it need not undermine the government’s position, and we need to ensure that this kind of assertion doesn’t go unchallenged.

The conceit that all MPs are part of “the government” is one that is often made, to the detriment of civic literacy across Canada.  Even Elizabeth May, who has been an effective opposition MP and has made great study of both the Standing Orders and O’Brien and Bosc – the bible of Canadian parliamentary procedure – has made pronouncements about government including all sides of the House.  As well, we have come to expect grand pronouncements from other opposition parties about how they want to be in “proposition not opposition,” or that more decisions should be made by consensus rather than in our adversarial system.  “For the good of democracy,” they say.

The problem with these well-wishers is that downplaying the role of opposition is not for the “good of democracy.”  In fact, it works to its detriment.  Opposition has many features beyond just being a “government in waiting,” and that has a lot to do with accountability.  If everybody is involved in a decision, then nobody can be held to account for it.  This is especially true for things like foreign policy and military deployments.  It’s why these things are Crown prerogatives in the first place – so that a government can act with one voice, but still be held to account for the actions that happen as a result of those decisions.  Bringing in more voices not only muddies those waters, but makes it effectively impossible to hold anyone to account – especially if the government of the day holds a vote in the Commons on something like a military deployment.

The other thing that most people don’t realize is that by having a loyal opposition within parliament, it allows the Queen to stay neutral and above the political fray.  This is a key and defining feature in our system of government – where the head of state is not the head of government, and can perform all of the symbolic and ceremonial functions of government that carry so much weight and importance, and which have a unifying quality to the public at large.  It’s another reason why our honours system, like the Order of Canada, comes from the Queen and not from Parliament – because it ensures that there is political neutrality to the honour, rather than the sense that the person receiving it is in the good books of the government of the day.

Unfortunately, we do have a history of weak opposition in Canada, as professor David E. Smith outlines in his book Across the Aisle, which examines that aspect of our political history.  That weakness is compounded when opposition parties increasingly shrug off their duties as opposition parties and instead offload them onto officers of parliament, such as the Auditor General, and lately, the Parliamentary Budget Officer.  The erosion of this scrutiny feature by parliamentarians has allowed our estimates process to become broken, and there are serious doubts as to whether control of the public purse actually rests in Parliament’s hands anymore, especially with recent changes made where only cabinet approval is needed for the government to borrow money.

So what is our opposition doing these days?  Well, if you follow Question Period as I do, then it looks like most of what the official opposition is doing is a lot of name-calling. The Fair Elections Act has become the “Unfair Elections Act,” just as previous omnibus budget implementations bills were called “Trojan Horse Bills,” though they were in no way Trojan Horses (owing to the fact that you could actually see what was inside of them, as terrible as they were).  On other days, the focus on the scandal of the day has them asking a lot of questions that are not within the administrative responsibility of the government, whether that is the operations of the Senate, or the Conservative party.  Questions based on emotion dominate instead of those based on policy.

Opposition is a difficult task, but it’s a vital one in our system.  And it especially needs to be said that “doing politics differently” is not opposition, because it’s not holding the government to account, especially when “differently” means all sides coming to a consensus.  We should be mindful that opposition and accountability go hand in hand, and it’s why government cannot be both sides.


Other articles by Dale Smith

Sackcloth and ashes for everyone!
MPs’ Written Speeches
Should Trudeau be able to charge speaking fees?
The Angus Standard On Election Rules

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale


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