Do we have a responsible opposition? -

Do we have a responsible opposition?


Set aside the decoys and false trails about the government needing to consult with Canadians on its economic action plan, or the idea that the government wants to reboot the Senate to take control of its committees. There is really only one reason why Parliament has been prorogued, and it is the vote, taken by the Commons on the last day before the Christmas break, to demand the Tories produce the unredacted documents relevant to the Colvin allegations. Harper has made it clear he does not want to produce the documents, and the Commons made it clear they want them. Parliament was set for a showdown.

That is why a lot of the critical commentary about Harper’s decision to prorogue has focused on the suspension as a device for foiling the express will of Parliament. What is at stake, goes the argument, is nothing less than the independence of the Commons from the Crown and the integrity of responsible government.

I’m sympathetic to this, but it is worth keeping in mind that this doesn’t cancel the production order, it merely delays it. And at six weeks, the delay isn’t that long. Yes, democracy delayed is, in some cases, democracy denied, but in this instance the government’s main talking point – that the allegations are “old news” actually works in the opposition’s favour: What’s another six weeks, given what is at stake?

I’m no more pleased than the next guy about Harper’s cavalier approach to the conventions of responsible government, but this is actually a useful test of just how serious the opposition is about demanding the documents. Last year, Harper suspected that the opposition wasn’t all that serious about the coalition, and by proroguing he effectively called that bluff. And that is pretty much what he has done again – he’s betting that the opposition will lose interest by March, move onto other things, and will forget that it ever asked for the documents in the first place.

Is that a bad bet? Not necessarily. From the aborted coalition to the aborted push for an election to the constant parade of Outrages this fall, the opposition – especially the Liberals – has shown itself to be remarkably short-sighted over the past twelve months. And so while it is fashionable to talk about responsible government, very few people are interested in the demands of responsible opposition. Responsible Opposition is an old-fashioned term that used to play a prominent role in constitutional scholarship, but no one really talks about it much any more. Maybe it’s time to reintroduce it into our working critical vocabulary, because for all the contempt that Harper has shown for Parliament over the past while, the opposition has frequently behaved in a way that was deserving of contempt.

After the parliamentary vote demanding the documents, I spoke with a handful of Liberal and NDP Mps, asking them what their plan was if the government refused to comply with the order. Are they willing to ban the prime minister from the House? Or send the RCMP to get the documents? Are they willing to take the fight for privilege to the supreme court?

Not one had any idea. Now, it is possible that they have a plan and just didn’t feel like telling me, but my sense is that there was, and is, no plan. Ralph Goodale calls prorogation “despotic”. Libby Davies is “appalled”. Gilles Duceppe says it’s become a “tradition” for Harper. Ok, well what are you going to do about it?

In a recent Coyne column, Derek Lee appeared to draw a line in the sand, saying that Parliament would not allow itself to be dissolved. Coyne obviously concurs. Is that the Liberal plan, or was Lee just freelancing? Is the opposition serious about Harper being a despot? We have a way of dealing with despots in this country, it’s called a vote of non-confidence. Happily, there’s a speech from the throne coming up not two months from now.

If the opposition members can’t keep themselves focused for two months on a matter of such importance, as Lee puts it, that it comes around only two or three times per century, then they deserve all of the contempt that Harper is more than willing to heap upon them.

Filed under:

Do we have a responsible opposition?

  1. I agree completely and the ball is squarely in the oppositions court now. No more half way scandal of the day and name calling as there is only one real question – will the oppostion force an election on their principles right after the throne speech – OR – ? … there it is folks no more fake indignation over some afghan being hit with his own shoe and get right to the real deal!

    • Time for the Chicken littles in the opposition to stop hiding behind the Senate.

  2. They won't do much of anything for the same reason as always- it would cause an election that they can't be sure of winning, because the conservatives can get by with 37.7% of the 58.8% that show up to vote. I assume you know that.

  3. I agree also, even though it sticks in my craw to agree with psiclone. There is no way the Liberals can back down from this in my opinion. Because if we think it's bad now, just wait until Harper gets away with this.

    And yes, the polls don't look good, and maybe it will give Harper a majority. That is completely irrelevant, in my opinion, to doing the job you were elected to do and holding the government to account.

    • Agreed. Ignoring the will of parliament is THE issue here. There should be a non-confidence vote.

      • The thing is, somewhere there has to be a legal or parliamentary procedural way to get those documents or to get someone honest impartial and knowledgable to make a ruling that there is a good reason they can't be produced. Rather than an election, that method should be followed. And if those methods are followed and Harper won't abide by the result, he should be punished severely.

        Yes the opposition needs to get serious on behalf of Canada. But we don't need an election every time Harper does something underhanded.

        • Agreed. But we may well need a court ruling to get him to comply in the future.
          How did we get to this point? That a PM who refuses to play within the rules can only be opposed by potentially rewarding him for breaking or refusing to recognise the rules in the first place. Sigh…well perhaps the time has come to see wether our opposition Parliamentarians are worthy of the name?

  4. to the constant parade of Outrages this fall

    What opposition doesn't trot out a constant parade of outrages? The Conservatives were masters of it when they were in opposition.

    We have a way of dealing with despots in this country, it's called a vote of non-confidence.

    Go Cheney yourself, Mr. Potter. You and every two bit hack begin chanting that Canadians don't want an election every time there's the possibility of one. So to claim the opposition have that as an option not only makes you an imbecile but also an a-hole.

    • Wow, you're a dick.

    • Go Cheney yourself, Mr. Potter. You and every two bit hack begin chanting that Canadians don't want an election every time there's the possibility of one. So to claim the opposition have that as an option not only makes you an imbecile but also an a-hole.

      This does not parse.

      If the opposition wish to defeat the government, they have that option. If the government is so horrible that they need to be defeated, then the political considerations will surely be irrelevant. If they still choose not to do so because it would be politically unfortunate for them, that makes them cowards. Why is Potter such a monster for pointing this out, pray tell?

    • first you were tiresome. now you'e a tool, too.

    • Harper to coalition of idiots: Your time is up!

  5. What is at stake…is nothing less than the independence of the Commons from the Crown…

    I think that's a confused and confusing way to frame the issue. The antagonist here is not the "Crown". The agent who is forcing prorogation–the prime minister– is no less independent and distinct from the Crown than is the Commons. Unfortunately, each prime minister seems to become increasingly bold in his abuse of prerogatives that would belong to the Crown if the Crown remained a viable and living component of our constitutional system—in other words, if the “Crown” yet existed as a meaningful constitutional entity.

    What's really at stake here is the independence of the Commons from a prime minister who is unafraid to exploit fully the powers that have accrued to his office throughout the decades of presidentialising decadence our system has suffered.

  6. To the opposition leaders,

    If you do not have the courage to vote non-confidence in the government in March, then Harper will deserve a majority when the next election occurs. Show some spine!

    • The opposition can't fight both the Conservatives and the Villagers.

      • Your pathetic excuses are every bit as pathetic as the Conservatives' pathetic justifications.

  7. "If the opposition members can't keep themselves focused for two months on a matter of such importance, as Lee puts it, that it comes around only two or three times per century, then they deserve all of the contempt that Harper is more than willing to heap upon them"

    Ok with AC and AP on this point…the opposition needs to show it doesn't have parliamentary attention deficit. The order to produce must be stood by. But how do you go to a vote of NC when you know very well that it's likely to be a losing proposition at present for them AP? I know that would be the principled thing to do…but isn't the real question here how does a weak group of opposition parties hold a govt to account when the only way to do so may well result in giving the despot exactly what he wants? What action do you take when the govt refuses to be held accountable by existing Parliamentary rules and conventions?

    • I know I'm not AP, but even though it may be a losing proposition, unless you want to make yourself completely irrelevant, you'll do it anyway. In other words, if you don't you're going to lose a lot of people who were counting on you to put a stop to this arrogant a$$hole. In the end, it is up to the Canadian people. If they want a despot, at least they were given the choice.

      • You're very likely right. It just sticks in my craw that there may be no way to stop this jerk within existing Parliamentary rules or conventions; it's a gun to the head everytime. I also don't like how this appears to legitimize those among the cons who argue that popular political legitimacy overrules institutional legitimacy…is this ineffect the only recourse we have for dealing with a demagogue…go to the polls and hope that people care enough…it may still be democracy, but at what point does it cease to be parliamentary democracy?
        Perhaps i wouldn't be so concerned if we didn't have such a lacklustre opposition in this country at present. It could well be viewed as the country's only as strong as its opposition…and i suppose its free press.
        I certainly hope we can rise to the occasion…otherwise we deserve what we get.

  8. It strikes me that the main reason Con's are in favour of the Opposition voting down the government is so that Harper doesn't have to violate his own Elections Act.


  9. SAid it before (in this very thread, even), I'll say it again:

    If Harper locked himself in the nicest bathroom in the HoC and started screaming he wasn't ever going to come out and the only way to make him come out was to vote non-confidence and have an election, it wouldn't have to be done. There'd be ways to force him to come out of the bathroom (if it really came down to it, probably a big burly police officer could remove him from the premises). And I suspect that's the case here too, it's just too esoteric that I don't know exactly what the method is, and the opposition seems less gung ho than it should to use it.

    • Oh, well sure, Mike T. I wonder if a point of privilege can be raised before the Throne Speech. It seems to me you would need a Speaker to do that, and it seems to me the Throne Speech comes before the election of Speaker, but I could be wrong on that. Anyway, if you could raise a point of privilege, you could make a motion to charge MacKay with contempt of Parliament. Then, you could boot him from the House. However, even if all that happened, I still think you'd be playing into Harper's hands. Let's face it, throwing MacKay under a bus would be Harper's dream come true. Rid of MacKay without having to lift a finger? His arguably "strongest" opponent for leader? Harper would make damn sure there was enough offensive stuff in the Throne Speech to ensure a non-confidence motion anyway.

  10. With the recent re-organization of the conservative party no doubt there are new management directives to be implemented in the Ministries. I think Harper in his bubble wants to focus his people on beaurocratic tasks that in his mind will cement his goverment’s power. Of course a weak opposition paired with a media that doesn’t know his priorities makes his bubble armour.

  11. Can you please re-activate my intense debate profile?

    • I'd love to but . . . .

      … better try Sheldon instead? I think he's the Macleans webby kinda guy. I'm certain I obtained his email here so I presume reposting it is ethical enough:

      ps ~ God, I hope you're not another right wing filbert? Are you?

      • You'll be much happier if you don't go look at the dominatrix charter challenge posting….

  12. Do we have a responsible government?

  13. The 3 opposition parties should form one party and turf this government out.

  14. The Bloc, NDP and the Liberals should form one party and defeat this government.

    • Keep in mind that the Conservatives are in power because Layton sided with them and the Bloc to get the Liberals out of power. Layton is absolutely not to be trusted – or, I should say, he can be trusted – to change sides anytime he wants to.

  15. It is absolutely outrageous that Stephen Harper abuses his power as Prime Minister! Time and time again he has shown himself to be an unscruplous, conniving, petty politician!

    But, he is a politician you may point out. Yet, what makes it so maddening is the fact that he started out wanting to reform the political process, that he elicited much hope in that regard in the hearts of people like myself, and finally that he is an evangelical Christian.

    Sadly, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Evangelical Christians should feel embarrased that one of their own professes Christ as Lord in church yet doesn't model his behaviour in the workplace. Sure, he is a staunch supporter of Israel and an opponent of gay marriage, but I hope, they will have the moral courage to condemn him when he is unethical and behaves inappropriately, just as they surely praise him when he is "moral" and shares their political and social views.

    • I think that Harper really wants to be elected President-for-Life. Then he can do whatever he wants with no fear of having to justify anything he does.
      He has also shown us that the Peter Principle is at work here – when the going gets tough – he goes home and hides in the closet.
      What we really need is an Opposition leader who is also a statesman (person), something we have not had in a long time. Where are all the great leaders?

  16. Your point's well taken about opposition cowardice. But it shouldn't have to take a vote of non-confidence to get the government to obey basic norms of accountability. I don't mean only that the government should observe conventions of respect for Parliament, regardless of whether it is conforming to the strict letter of the law. I also mean there should be mechanisms for curbing such abuses, short of dissolving Parliament.

    For example, should the power to prorogue rest solely with the Prime Minister (I know, I know: the Governor General, acting on his advice)? Should it not require a vote of Parliament?

    Heh. "Cavalier." Intended?

    • yes prorogation should require a vote of Parliament!

    • Should it not require a vote of Parliament?

      That would bring up the opposition parties capable of forcing a minority Parliament to remain in session. Interesting. You might want to make sure it could not be (curiously) named a confidence measure, else an outvoted motion to prorogue would lead to… the fall of the government.

    • Sounds like you want to amend our beloved Constitution, Andrew. Good luck with that.

    • The last time Harper sought to prorogue, there was no actual vote against his Government in the House … only the threat of one backed by a coalition. The GG had no technical reason to deny Harper's request.

      This time, the Government lost a vote in the House on a matter of Parliamentary privilege (the House as a whole voted to support a committee's right to call for documents and witnesses). Harper has refused to abide by this vote of the House as a whole. In these circumstances, quite different than last year, the GG should refuse his request as the government is clearly trying to avoid the will of a functioning Parliament (aka, the will of the people).

      Perhaps your first measure in reforming the process for proroguation should be to abide by the existing conventions: shutting down the House so the government can ignore the will of the people is a pretty clear abuse of power and the GG should reject it. Of course, Harper could then do a document dump, hand the committee everything, and then prorogue…

  17. I gave you two thumbs up for your last paragraph…

  18. The Opposition collectively can kick Harper's Ass – as they did in two elections already – but this time they HAVE TO WORK together.
    I know it sounds a tall order – but they have no choice in the matter!
    Ignatieff has to get the Opposition cats herded into a Coalition – or he might as well start reading the help wanted ads…

    • I'm beginning to wonder if you aren't right…only at the very beginning mind you. Much as it pains me to admit it, but the liberals may be a spent force historically speaking…no shame in that. Most reasonable observers concede they did a good job on balance. But where next? A formal coalition seems out, a merger makes no sense right now, as does not running in each others ridings; and how to accomodate the bloc without outraging the public?

      • A formal coalition is out, to my mind; a merger might have been feasible a couple of years ago, but not at this juncture. Besides, there are some very basic differences between the Liberals and the NDP and I'm not sure they could, or should, be overcome.

        But I'm wondering about a few select ridings–say three each–where the NDP candidate would have won if people hadn't voted for the Liberal candidate, and vice-versa. The candidates would need to be strong and principled types (not your sleazebag or buffoon candidate). I only know of one such riding, but if more exist it might be worth considering.

        • The select riding idea doesn't really appeal to me…it smacks too much of backroom stuff and denying the voters the choice of who they prefer…still it may come to that one day, at least in a strictly limited sense. I prefer some kind of loose coalition…but who knows if that'll really work?

        • Unfortunately, especially at the grassroots level, the Liberals really seem to hate the NDP more than they hate the Conservatives, and perhaps more than they want to beat the conservatives. One of Ralph Goodale's campaign staffers actually threw something at me for supporting the local NDP candidate, who was a university friend of mine. (Fortunately, his sense of direction was no better than that of his party . . .)

    • Y'know, I need help conjuring the mental images of the Right Honourable Paul Martin and the Honourable Stéphane Dion, at their respective moments in history, celebrating the respective ass-kickings just then-delivered to Harper. I'm not saying these events didn't happen behind closed doors. I'm just confessing to a great deal of trouble conjuring up the image…

  19. Talk of coalition?


    Very interesting.

    Puts the whole partisan attack regarding the poor beleagered captured Taliban, in some perspective.

    • But a coalition will never fly with Canadians. Right?

      • Honestly and declare it before the election so that voters know what they're voting for? That's the way it should be done.

        As to whether it "will fly"? The whole does not necessarly equal the sum of its parts in such matters. There's a whole lot of blue liberals, far left NDP ers, and principled Bloc voters that would have none of it. And the turnout for those who lean conservative would be through the roof.

        More importantly, the damage to the Liberal brand would be immense.

        I say they go for it.

        • 'Honestly and declare it before the election so that voters know what they're voting for? That's the way it should be done"

          Er, no actually. Are you saying that in the event of a no confidence vote going against the govt that the oppositionhas no legitimate right to form a govt if the GG says – no election? Because that is in fact what our consitution allows for – sorta what Harper contemplated in 04. The idea that all possible coalitions must be declared up front is patently absurd – of course if you deny you will form a coalition during an election and then break your word, all bets are off. If the public don't like the results they'll make that abundantly clear at the next election.

    • "Puts the whole partisan attack regarding the poor beleagered captured Taliban, in some perspective"

      Only in your mind Biff. What on earth musing about political strategy and the morality of not doing our most to prevent detainee abuse, or prorguing Parliament to hide the evidence, has to to do with one another escapes me…do tell?

      • Oh, it's this new game Jarrid's got us playing. You take two totally unrelated subjects (like say, the salt level in the Dead Sea and the time it takes a puppy to eat his meal) and you conclude that if only the salt level were higher or lower then of course the puppy would eat faster or slower! Fun, isn't it?

      • This comment was deleted.

        • Stick to hyperpole, sarcasm's not your game.

    • Actually, biff, if the coalition TRULY believes that, on behalf of Canadians, we simply MUST get to the bottom of the whole detainee issue, even if it exposes state secrets at the expense of our own interests and our credibility for keeping secrets among our heretofore trusting allies, then that would be a far more principled reasoning than the nonsense offered last year. I did not say that it was necessarily a correct reason. But principled? You bet.

      I suspect most Canadians who care at all have already figured out the broad outlines: we're at war, but we decided for some reason we didn't want prisoners. We were too chicken to hand over to the USA so we handed them over to whatever passed for Afghan authority. We should not have been surprised that this was a dumb idea, and we eventually tried, within that framework, to make it marginally less dumb over time.

  20. The way I see it, there is only one way out of this mess for the Liberals. They must form a coalition of sorts with the NDP. If Harper's latest stunt doesn't provide sufficient a reason for this, nothing will.

    I say this with the full realization that Iggy didn't want any part of a union with the NDP but then again at the time, he had a reasonable chance to beat Harper at the polls.

    If the Liberals have any sense and set aside their Harper-like hunger for power and think of the public good, they will understand that a united front with the Dippers against the Evil Empire is the only solution.

    And yes, Iggy stupidly said a few months ago that he would never enter into a coalition. So what? Harper lies all the time and gets away with it.

    • It would be difficult for the Liberals and the NDP to join forces because there are philosophical differences between the two parties. And any attempt to merge would be greeted with loud cries of "OMG! Coalition! Coalition! Evil! Bad!" That train left the station long ago.

      The Conservatives will be able to get away with pretty much whatever they want as long as their base remains solid enough to ensure another minority if an election is called. Given that a Conservative majority is unlikely – they have alienated too many voters in too many regions – the only way out of the current state of gridlock is for swing voters to become disgusted enough with the Conservatives to vote them out of office.

      At this point, the opposition's only realistic course of action is to wait and let Harper hang himself with his own rope.

      • Out there, you might be willing to wait for Harper to hang himself but I'm not.

        While the Libs continue to delude themselves with the notion that Canadians will just vote them back into power when they've offered nothing but continuous infighting, Harper is systematically going about dismantling our democratic institutions.

        His sights are now on Parliament. He must be stopped.

        The only way to stop him is for the Libs to set aside their own greed and do what is right for this country. Someone must take a stand. The Libs should call in Broadbent or whoever work out a deal. It doesn't have to be an official coalition. God knows that there are tons of examples of parliamentary combinations out there that can work with both groups, even if it is temporary.

        They only need to come to a deal for the next election so as to take Harper out of power. Once in Opposition, his own caucus will take care of him.

        Someone must take a stand and protect our democracy from Harper. The Libs and the NDP have to do this before it is too late.

        • Don't get me wrong: I think that the Liberals should do everything they can to try to force Harper to obey the will of Parliament. They should insist on following up on the Afghan issue when Parliament resumes. But the likely sequence of events would be this:

          – The Liberals demand the documents from the Conservatives.
          – The Conservatives tell them to go soak their heads.
          – The Liberals call a non-confidence vote and win it.
          – There is another election.
          – The Conservatives gain yet another minority, only now with 50% more taunting.

          My point is that the Conservatives have not yet angered enough of their power base (or potential power base) for there to be a realistic chance of their losing the next election. But (I hope) that Canadians – even hard-core Conservatives – aren't that easily fooled: if Harper becomes too anti-democratic, he'll lose enough swing votes to lose his grip on power.