In defence of partisanship

iPolitics publishes an excerpt from Democratizing the Constitution.

There are several reasons why the House performs its critical functions so poorly, but partisan politics in the House is not one of them. Partisanship is to robust democratic politics what competition is to an open economic marketplace. Partisanship flows from the fundamental democratic right to have one’s own political views, to organize politically with others of similar views, and, most important, to stand in opposition to others, whether these others are in power or not, and in the majority or not. This is why the opposition to the government in the British parliamentary system is called the “Loyal Opposition.” In opposing the government, it is not committing sedition, treason, or subversion against the state. On the contrary, it is performing a crucial democratic function. The opposition is recognized as legitimate in its criticism of the government.




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In defence of partisanship

  1. Well said! It is a great read by the way! We should send it to MPS as Christmas presents : )

  2. Hey Aaron, I can’t share your blog on Twitter, this one or the last one about Dewar. But I was able to share Coyne’s article just fine.

  3. There are lots of why and wherefores on how we ended up here as Nation but the past twenty years of political correctness has done enormous damage to partisanship and debates within Canada. Past twenty years have been an attack on conservatives and State has done as much as it can to eliminate dissent, not encourage it. 

    Happy clappy hippies have taken over society but they are stuck on stupid when it comes to normal human behaviours. Debates are essential to achieve best solution for everyone but questioning technocrats is verboten in Canada. 

    PJ O’Rourke ~ Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy, the whores are us.

  4. Of course we need an Opposition….a ‘govt in waiting’.  It’s what the system is set up to do, and there is nothing ‘disloyal’ about it.

    What we don’t need is for the partisanship to be personal….to subject people in public life to attacks on their character, their looks, their past lives, or possible motivations.

    Martin, Dion, Ignatieff and Layton were attacked in that way….and it’s damaged our national life and public discourse.

    Please stick to policies and direction and ideas, and leave the other stuff out of it.

    • Yes, because Harper was never subjected to personal attacks.

      • That was the “They did it first!” unsubstantiated “Im a victim” whine.

      • No, he wasn’t.  No one suggested he was into child porn,  or sterile, or an elitist egghead. No one mentioned his marriage, or his siblings and parents, or said that he was working for the enemy.

        • Does Ignatieff talking like Hugo Chavez count or is Harper really the devil?

          Calgury Sun July 2010 ~ 

          Speaking before a Stampede breakfast crowd of about 150 to kick off a Canada-wide summer bus tour, Ignatieff took aim at Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggesting the Conservative is to the extreme right of most Canadians.

          “We are the progressive, reforming centre of Canada. I can’t emphasize how much we are in the centre,” he told supporters.

          “You know you smell the whiff of sulfur coming off the guy (Harper) – we know how right wing these guys really are.”

          • That was a comment on Harper’s political position….not on his weight, his appearance or his marriage.

            For someone that just mentioned ‘happy clappy hippies’  Tony, you’re in no position to talk.

          • You are missing the point. Iggy is insinuating in this quote that Harper is evil and/or affiliated with the devil… I would hardly call that impersonal.
            Yes it was in response to his policies and political position but still attacked him as a person.

          • @MuffTuff

            It’s a very old christian phrase

  5. Im not so sure about what might be a false equivalency in comparing partisanship with competition. It smacks of praising ideology, rather than practicality. 

    Most certainly, you can have differing opinions, and yet work cooperatively in government. 

    “Choice!” is a mantra of the right, raising The Marketplace to an godlike ideological place above any other values.

    Remember that “Peace, Order, and Good Government” thing?

    This government has used partisanship as a destructive divisive weapon, going way beyond merely disagreeing with your opponents, they use it to destroy them.

    Disagreeing with your opponents doesn’t cause the house to function poorly. Partisanship used as a bludgeon does.

  6. Here’s another excerpt from DtC: “there are no firm rules for the governor general to refer to when the prime minister has lost the confidence of the House of Commons and then wants to dissolve it….As far as we are aware, Governor General David Johnston did not consult with the leaders of the opposition to see whether a new government could be formed from the opposition with the confidence of a majority. This would be standard procedure in Australia, Great Britain, and New Zealand, where it is fully accepted that the House decides who forms the government.”

    There is not a single example in Canada or any of the aforementioned countries of the GG allowing the opposition to form a government so long (2.5 years) after an election. Additionally, the onus is on the opposition to notify the GG that they have confidence, not on GG to consult, see Clark gov’t and Shreyer’s response for example.  Finally, there are firm rules, 1 of which being that an election had been held very recently, and there had been no time or issues likely to change the mind of the electorate.  While these rules are convention rather than law, some conventions are more important than laws, as per Bora Laskin.

    I’d call these errors, except that it is impossible that the 3 highly educated authors of this book made such glaring mistakes without intent.

    • In the case of New Zealand, it is codified in the Cabinet Manual that there should be mid-term GG consultation with leaders of the opposition after the government has lost a vote of confidence in the House, so it’s fair to call this “standard procedure” despite the lack of precedent.

      As for Australia and Great Britain, defeat of a government on a confidence motion is so rare in the last eighty years or so (just one recent example: GB – 1979) that it’s hard to know whether opposition consultations took place.  Personally, I have no idea. 

      The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 received Royal Assent in the UK recently. Section 2 of the Act provides for a change of government mid-term if the government is defeated on a confidence vote and a new government gains the confidence of the House. So despite the lack of precedent, it is fair to call this “standard procedure” because it is enshrined in legislation.

      While all three countries indisputably accept the principle that the confidence of the House determines who forms government, I think that in the interest of clarity, the wording in the “standard procedure” clause of that sentence should be revised.

      That said, I don’t think it’s fair to attack the authors on the basis of a single ambiguous sentence. Have you read the book, or just an excerpt?

      • You are referring to section 6.54 of the NZ cabinet manual, which appears to do the opposite of compel consultation: “Where loss of confidence is clear, the PM will, in accordance w. convention advise that the administration will resign. In this situation: a. a new administration may be appointed from the Parliament (if an administration that has the confidence of the House is available); or b. an election may be called.”

        This clearly does not compel GG to consult. I don’t think your innovative interpretation of standard procedure is legitimate, the term clearly conveys precedent.  In any case there is no precedent, as you agree.  New Zealand has MMP and 3 year terms, making comparisons problematic.  The term codified connotes legal codification, and the NZ handbook is a guideline which (I believe, correct me if wrong) is not actually codified in law.

        I appreciate the info on Fixed-term Parliament Act but it received assent only 2 weeks ago, well after the 2011 dissolution, and after the book was published.

        Standard procedure is sufficiently synonymous with convention that it suggests GG Johnston had a constitutional requirement to consult.  The reader – and this book is targeted at young people – is left with the very wrong impression that Harper appointed GG Johnston failed in his constitutional duty.

        I think it’s perfectly reasonable to critize authors for glaring inaccuracies, some of which your comments ignore.  It is preposterous and inaccurate to write – in a poli sci textbook no less – that GG  Johnston had a duty to consult Ignatieff in 2011, and I’m surprised that you don’t understand that or seem to care.

        I can cite precedent (ie convention, standard procedure)  that the GG does not in fact have to consult, even shortly after an election: the fall of the Clark govt: http://digitaljournal.com/article/263042 Ed Shreyer: “In
        the event that an alternative group was willing to come forward to form
        government, I would have felt obliged to grant a commission to form
        such a government”, which is to say there is no onus on GG to consult, especially 2.5 years into a term, the onus falling on the opposition to notify.

        • It is preposterous and inaccurate to write – in a poli sci textbook no less – that GG  Johnston had a duty to consult Ignatieff in 2011…

          Where did the authors write this?  They wrote: “For example, there are no firm rules for the GG to refer to when the PM has lost the confidence of the House of Commons and then wants to dissolve it”.   This is true – no firm rules exist.

          So where did the authors suggest a duty to consult the opposition?  Where did the authors talk about onuses?  In their example, all they wrote was:  “As far as we are aware, Governor General David Johnston did not consult with leaders of the opposition to see whether a new government could be formed from the opposition with the confidence of a majority”.  

          You seem to be reading disapproval or criticism into this sentence where none exists.  The authors simply observed that it did not happen, and the expectation is that it would happen elsewhere.

             You are referring to section 6.54 of the NZ cabinet manual, which appears to do the opposite of compel consultation…

          It doesn’t “compel consultation”, but it certainly invites it.  How else is the GG to discern whether an administration that has the confidence of the House is available?  Either the leader of an administration with the confidence of the House approaches the GG, or the GG approaches the leader.  I don’t think who initiates the consultation is all that relevant, as long as the door to consultation is opened.

          The term codified connotes legal codification

          Not necessarily.  Even though the NZ Cabinet Manual contains guidelines that are not codified into law, experts often refer to the NZ Cabinet manual as “codification” (e.g. something beyond mere consolidation of principles).  As far as I am aware, the guidelines contained in the manual have never been contravened by practice since the manual’s inception, so it would be extraordinary if an alternative government waiting in the wings didn’t consult with the GG.

          I appreciate the info on Fixed-term Parliament Act but it received assent only 2 weeks ago, well after the 2011 dissolution, and after the book was published.

          The book was published in July, and by then it was clear that the Act would become law.

          Standard procedure is sufficiently synonymous with convention that it suggests GG Johnston had a constitutional requirement to consult. 

          First, the authors were talking about “standard procedure” in other countries, so your inference isn’t supported.  The authors were NOT suggesting that GG Johnston had a constitutional requirement to consult. 

          Second, I don’t want to get hung up on the semantics of the term “standard procedure”.  It doesn’t necessarily convey precedent, because new “standards” of procedure can be established through legislation, as in UK, or de facto (but not legal) codification , as in NZ.  As I said earlier, in my opinion the authors could have chosen their words more carefully in this sentence, to avoid ambiguity.

          • “Where did the authors write this? ”

            “Governor General David Johnston did not consult with the leaders of the opposition…This would be standard procedure”

            The plain meaning of this is that the convention in a British Parliamentary system is to consult, and a convention, in constitutional matters, is a constitutional requirement.  The authors suggest Harper and Johnston’s actions aren’t in accordance with British Parliamentary traditions.  They were.

            To even raise the issue that the GG might be compelled to consult the opposition on dissolution so late in a mandate is absurd. 

            And, for a third time, the GG does not need to consult, period, the onus falls on the opposition and I have cited a very clear case, in the words of an actual GG.

            I think a “forthrightness gap” makes further dialogue problematic, so I’ll just restate a few points:

            -The authors state there are no clear rules, this is false.
            -Even raising the suggestion that the GG should have consulted the opposition in the 2011 dissolution scenario is preposterous.
            -It is not standard procedure in UK/NZ/AUS for a GG to consult the opposition so deep into the mandate; in fact, it has never happened, nor is there any convention, or codification, requiring consultation.  The statement in the book, therefore, is false.
            -The recent UK law was months away from assent when the book was published and not a sure thing to receive assent, and has no bearing here.
            -The GG does not need to consult, even if dissolution occurs shortly after an election, as GG Shreyer explained.
            -Your statement that the NZ handbook says “there should be mid-term GG consultation” is false. In fact, the handbook says the opposite.

            There are other issues in the chapter. The authors state as fact that Harper prorogued in 2010 in order to avoid scrutiny on Afghan detainee issue.  Unless this was ghostwritten by Kreskin, that is speculation, and not even Occam’s Razor speculation.  There are  more likely explanations that I’m sure the bright folks here can figure out themselves. 

    • :-) “…GG allowing the opposition to form a government so long (2.5 years) after an election.”

      2.5 years is too long. Three months is too soon. Funny.

      As Crit quotes below,” While all three countries indisputably accept the principle that the confidence of the House determines who forms government,”

      The election has nothing to do with it.

      Perhaps it is you is making a mistake without intent?

  7. After being asked a legitimate question about the economy last week, Jim Flaherty responded “Mr. Speaker, there the member goes again, bad mouthing our country and trying to reduce confidence in our economy.”

    “The opposition is recognized as legitimate in its criticism of the government.” Is it? Really? Apparently, to criticize the government is to be anti-Canadian, and evilly so.

    Partisanship is one thing. Hyper-partisanship, unprincipled partisanship, isn’t doing anybody good.

    • Seconded.  If I were to add to your point, I don’t think I would call it hyper-partisanship, per se.

      I think it’s very healthy to question each other’s arguments, our opinions, the facts used to support those arguments.  What is occuring all too often these days though is questioning each other’s motives.  For the finance minister to suggest the opposition’s motive is to reduce confidence in the economy is ludicrous.  For the defence minister to suggest the opposition does not support the troops is ridiculous.

      All sides are equally guilty in this.  The Liberals used the “Hidden Agenda” card to significant effect many years ago to question Tory motives.  In the spring election, the Tories used the “He’s just in it for himself” card extensively.

      I think all parties and all MPs need to step back and acknowledge among each other that although we all have different ideas for how to run the country and although we disagree with each others’ ideas – sometimes quite vigourously - we do acknowledge that all MPs do want to work towards a healthy and prosperous Canada.

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