Friday, 15 June 2012

Opposition, Omnibus & the Hyperbole of Democracy

As with any show of political theatre - which at its core was what was on display in Ottawa over the past few days - some performances tend toward excess in form and prose. While some MPs are to be commended, particularly those from the 'minor' parties, the rhetoric eschewing from the Official Opposition once again illustrated a profound misunderstanding of the very system of government of which it wishes to assume the reins of power. One would assume that a prerequisite for governance - beyond, of course, an electoral mandate - is an understanding of the institutions and conventions which underpin that system. The conceptualization of Canadian Parliamentary politics as espoused by the NDP is fundamentally and irrevocably at odds with the working and historical reality of Westminster institutions.

Most strikingly, the Loyal Opposition seems intent on implanting onto that role something which is entirely antithetical to it. Chiefly, it seems intent on conceptualization opposition as if its role is legislative and governmental. Contrary to the rhetoric and some intimations, the 'Official Opposition' is not a part of the government. The government - that is, the political executive - is comprised of members of Parliament chosen by the Crown as representatives by virtue of commanding the confidence of the House. It is the government that presents a legislative agenda to the elected assembly for its approval.

Yes, the Opposition has ample opportunity to participate in the legislative process, most directly through committee amendments or private member's bills. It is, however, important to make an important distinction here. It is not by virtue of being the Opposition that this is possible, rather it is by virtue of each individual as elected representatives - Parliamentarians - and not by party standing. What is often lost in the din of party politics - coupled with a severe public misunderstanding of how Parliaments form - is that the Commons is made of up of individuals and not parties. It is the collective will of individuals - although often bound by party loyalty (or discipline) - that results in the formation of this collective.

The role of the opposition is primarily to do just that: to oppose. It exists to hold the government to account for the actions it undertakes, including its legislative agenda. It does this primarily through Question Period - although the utility of that exchange is now entirely doubtful - and committee work, but also by engaging with the Canadian people, often through soundbites delivered by the media. Yet the current Opposition seems intent on inflating and conflating the role beyond its current limits. One need only look to the use of backdrops and signage in the wake of the ascension of of the New Democrats to that role - role, not office - largely to enhance its own standing. It is intent on creating an office that existed only loosely before.

Part of this inflation of the role has been buttressed by the conflation of the Opposition with a legislative role. As successive leaders beginning with Jack Layton and continuing with Thomas Mulcair have spuriously claimed, the role is not simply one of opposing, but of proposing. As Mulcair articulated recently, "We're there of course as the Official Opposition, sometimes to call the government to account, to oppose, but more and more you're going to hear us propose". The claim is that Canadians want Parliament to work together and, as such, that this somehow obligates the government not only to entertain ideas from opposition parties, but also to incorporate them into the agenda.

This is a phenomena that I've coined the 'Laytonian Fallacy' and it is entirely at odds with basic operating principles of Westminster Parliamentary politics. The fallacy assumes that the desire of many Canadians for Parliament to 'work together' elevates the opposition's role - without constitutional (written or conventional), legal or institutional justification or legitimacy - and, strangely, somehow supersedes electoral results! It is a troubling theory - especially for a party with 'democratic' in its name - to willingly disregard the sole mechanism for choosing the composition of our Parliament (and thus the government) for some strange cooperative principle which is entirely absent and, it must be reiterated, antithetical to the system of governance itself. Canadian government is, by nature of its history and institutions, adversarial. [It is also worth noting that the claim that this must be the only legitimate course of action because '60% of the country voted against Harper' strains logic given that a greater number (70%) voted against the Official Opposition).]

The basic working principles of Canadian democracy are quite simple. A government must command the confidence of the House. This means that a simple majority of individual MPs must side with the government on any given matter of confidence. The basic working principle of Canadian government does not entertain the notion that all parties must contribute to the legislative process. Parties have little in the way of official standing beyond what is granted to individual members - places on committee, opportunities to ask questions - by their party's standing in the House. The majority principle is quite clear. To insist on some inflated degree of consensus - a mythical supermajority - is foreign and should be dismissed. Canadians may desire 'greater cooperation', but this cannot and should not mean that elected representatives ignore the rules of the game.

Turning briefly to recent events, much has been made of the 'anti-democratic' nature of the budget omnibus bill. This is, to a substantial degree, little more than hyperbole. Two points need to be addressed. First, the notion that the bill represented a 'Trojan Horse' is not only an inapt allusion, but a partisan delusion. Something can only be considered a Trojan Horse when the contents are unknown and have an effect running contrary to what was expected. Had the budget bill been filled with Conservative soldiers ready to slaughter an unsuspected opposition, then and only then could it be considered a Trojan horse. Additionally, had the Conservatives been trying to hide these elements, it runs contrary to common sense that they would, whilst concealing them, tout them openly as having benefits for 'jobs and prosperity'. In this sense, the omnibus was more or a Pythonian Wooden Rabbit than a Trojan Horse.

Indeed, the real motivation for the omnibus, in my estimation, is far more deleterious and portends much worse than a simple attempt to sneak changes through. The omnibus was chosen, not because it was a convenient mechanism for obfuscation but rather because it provided a convenient means to avoid altogether the proper oversight mechanisms of Parliament. In essence, the omnibus was not an attempt to deceive but rather a heavy handed ramrod aimed at bypassing scrutiny. By attaching a host of clauses to the budget bill the government was, simply put, able to considerably reduce the amount of time any item would have spent before Parliament. It is indicative of a government averse to oversight and accountability.

The claim that the sheer volume (400 or so pages) of the omnibus makes it likely that clauses could slip through unnoticed also fails to hold water. The collective breadth of the legislative agenda would still amount to some 400 pages (perhaps more) if the omnibus had been broken down into smaller pieces. The same volume would have to have been perused by MPs regardless. 400 pages in twenty 20 page chunks is still 400 pages. Splitting the bill into smaller sections may have increased the amount of specific attention each item received and delayed passage by a few months, but the net effect would be roughly the same.

Second, the notion that an omnibus is somehow an affront to democracy is an unhelpful feat of hyperbole.
While distasteful and, as indicated above, obviously designed to avoid sustained scrutiny, the bill was, in essence, procedurally sound. Again, it is helpful to remember that Parliament sets its own rules and, in this case, these are rules that have long been in effect and could have been changed by previous Parliaments. Indeed, it is a difficult stretch to claim that an act lacks democratic legitimacy when it has the confidence of the House. It is the job of the government to propose, while it is the job of the opposition to oppose. The Commons demonstrated that it was prepared to hold the government to account - even if it was met with legislative failure. It is again important to remember that Parliament is made up of individuals and it is the collective will of these individuals that shape political outcomes. Ratcheting up the hyperbole merely serves to undermine the legitimacy of the very institutions many have set out to save. Parliament cannot be salvaged by disregarding what is intrinsic to it. Between elections, governments propose and oppositions oppose. Success for the opposition is not and should not be measured by its ability to ground the government's agenda to a halt - indeed such obstructionism would be undemocratic - but rather by its ability to shine a light on process. By this measure - the proper measure of our parliamentary and democratic heritage - the opposition, Official and not, admirably fulfilled its proper, democratic role.

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