One of the recurrent criticisms of the Harper government is the extreme partisan nature of how it operates. It is certainly true that the current government has been more overt in its partisanship, particularly as a tool of control – both of the message and caucus – and as a means of combatting the opposition. This hyper-partisanship has clearly been problematic, sharpening the barbs hurled at enemies – real or perceived – and raising the level of rancor and vitriol, particularly in Question Period and in the form of attack ads. Indeed, partisanship and the Harper are largely synonymous.
Beyond condemnation of the way the government operates, what these criticisms assume is that partisanship is itself an unnatural and unwelcome component of Canadian politics. Looking South as so many of this country’s journalists do, the American illustration of partisanship in action – indeed, inaction - paints an entirely negative picture in which partisanship inevitably leads to gridlock and, ultimately, political stasis. Partisanship, in short, is cast entirely in the pejorative.
Part of the allure of the NDP surge in the 2011 general election was a clarion call against partisanship. The vacuous mantra ‘Ottawa is Broken’ decried the negative tone of federal politics, a nasty and brutish parliamentary discourse and a government unwilling to cooperate with the opposition, despite its minority status. If a change in tone was to be the hallmark of a New Democratic opposition it has yet to emerge. Beware those seeking to usher in a post-partisan era. They are likely interested only in the rhetoric.
The NDP of 2011 fundamentally misunderstood the role of opposition in Canadian politics. Its core obligation as Official Opposition – its constitutional function – is to hold the government to account for its policies and actions. It is not to propose legislation for the government to adopt. Related to this, it denies the role that partisanship plays in fulfilling its constitutional obligation. Partisanship is inherent in the structure of parliament itself, with benches aligned Government versus Opposition. It animates the system. A consociational democracy cannot simply be smoothed over existing institutions.
The opposition is not alone in denying the role of partisanship in Canadian politics. Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star laments the partisan turn the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has taken since the departure of former Chief of Staff Nigel Wright. Delacourt claims that “In the past, PMOs have stayed at arm’s length from more base partisanship, since the PMO, technically at least, is supposed to speak for all Canadians”. This is a fanciful fiction.
The entire office if premised on partisanship. Consider for instance, that John McMenemy describes the PMO thusly:
“A partisan central executive office, organized and staffed by the prime minister to gather political intelligence in the country, the party and the legislature, to advise the prime minister on political implications of policy and administrative matters”
The use of exempt staff – both in the PMO and by executive assistants for cabinet ministers – reconcile the fact that Ministers, for instance, have partisan functions and Ministerial functions and that the two are both valid, must exist simultaneously and, importantly, must be carefully separated. As such, the PMO is to partisanship what the Privy Council Office (PCO) is to Cabinet operations. This reflects the fact that, like all MPs, the Prime Minister and Cabinet being members of both executive and the legislature have dual responsibilities.
Objections are often raised to the financing of such operations from the public purse arguing that public funds should not be used for partisan purposes. Again, this ignores the constitutive role partisanship plays in the operation of parliament and responsible government more broadly. Second, funding partisan activities ensures transparency and reduces the role of money in politics. It is also worth noting that the Leader of the Opposition has a exempt Chief of Staff and an increased budget for research, all in the service of partisanship ostensibly to hold the government to account. A short-lived party financing regime under Chretien and Martin also utilized public funds for partisan purposes – the per vote subsidy – again to reduce the role of money – in particular corporate and union money – in the political process. Indeed, public funds for partisan purposes can have democratic benefits.
There are clear objections to be raised about the role of the PMO in federal politics. The fact that it is political is not one of them. What is perhaps lamentable is the continued growth of the office, the centralization of authority ever more into the hands of the prime minister at the expense of cabinet, and the increased advisory and policy role of the PMO rather than the PCO and Cabinet. More to the point, arguments against partisanship in Ottawa – or in the provinces – conflate rancor with partisanship. The two are no necessarily contingent on one another. Problems rest with the tenor of politics, not partisanship on its own. It is deeply engrained in our institutions and has been accommodated as such. It is a useful tool of parliamentary government, delineating opposition from government*, casting greater relief on policies and actions and helping to hold the government to account.
The Language of Canadian Politics, 4th Edition - John McMenemy WLU Press
*As an aside: this point bears elaboration as recent Question Period examples illustrate that the Official Opposition has been overtly partisan, not in holding the government to account, but in using that period to attack the third party (as the government has done as well). This constitutes an example where partisanship is being used solely for electioneering and little else. In this context partisanship becomes problematic not because it is useless but because it is narrowly self-interested and myopic.