In praise of partisan politicians

Partisan debate—fierce, witty, memorable—is a critical check on the power of a majority government. Bring it on.

Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose is receives applause during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose is receives applause during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

“It’s been 25 minutes and the sunny ways are over.”

Rona Ambrose delivered that short eulogy for Justin Trudeau’s vaunted promise of a new tone in Parliament on the first day of question period. Before you could even say “welcome back” she was in a full-throttle, partisan debate about the Liberal spending promises and the combat mission in Iraq and Syria.

“Canada isn’t back. Canada is backing away,” Ambrose zinged, trying to pop another Liberal balloon before it got too high in the political sky.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair joined her, taking Trudeau to task over climate change targets. “Once [the Liberal government] finally decides on Canada’s targets, will it make them binding?” he asked, ever the taunting court room prosecutor.

For his part, Trudeau beamed, gazing off in the parliamentary distance at Mulcair and then giving him a civics 101 lesson. Poor old Tom “forgets from time to time,” Trudeau said, that Canada is a federation and the government must work with the provinces. Ouch. Get too close to the sunny ways and the Liberal leader is not afraid to inflict a little sunburn.

It was such a relief. The sharp partisan tone, filigreed with heckles and jabs, is still alive and well. We should want it no other way. Partisanship is not a dirty word. It is an essential part of our democracy. And in a majority government, Conservative or Liberal, we should come to praise the true partisans, not bury them.

After 10 years of Stephen Harper’s often oppressive style, where mouthpiece minions like Pierre Poilievre wrongly defined partisanship as a licence to obfuscate, delay and bully, it has become stylish to dismiss partisanship as some kind of ancient disease, like political scurvy. Trudeau’s sunny ways were supposed to be a barrel of limes, the cure. Get rid of partisans in the Senate. Stop the partisan tone on Parliament. Have co-operative, genteel discussions, full of substance and concession. Work together as one happy parliamentary family.


That is not only the wrong diagnosis, it is a dangerous democratic mistake. It also happens to be a serious misreading of what Justin Trudeau actually wants.

Trudeau has always said he stands for the basic tenet of responsible government: accountability. He repeats this constantly, as he should. Accountability begins with a robust opposition. Its job is to be the watchdog, to provide a critical view of legislation and public policy. It must both oppose when necessary and propose alternatives when needed. That is the job of a true partisan. We want our members of Parliament to authentically represent different world views, views that reflect both diverse political philosophies and specific local needs. The best way to do this is through a vital, a passionate, partisan debate. “The role of the Opposition in our parliamentary system reflects the premise that a delicate balance must be maintained between permitting elected governments to govern and legislate effectively and ensuring that power is exercised with care and with respect for minorities and for dissenting views,” explains the parliamentary website. I’m the sure the close to 200 rookie MPs have read this carefully.

Partisan debate is a critical check and balance on the power of majority governments. The Senate was meant to do part of this job, but its reputation as a scandal-plagued body of unelected officials has undermined its credibility. That means it’s more important than ever for the opposition to use public opinion to slow down the work of a majority government.

In order to light the fire of public opinion, though, partisan debate needs to be interesting, it needs to be a spark. That means a combination of style and substance. The yearning for question period to turn into an earnest, academic symposium is wrong-headed. Question period is about public performance. Memorable lines. Putting the powerful on the spot. The less entertaining, more substantive debate occurs—or it ought to occur—in committees. They are vital. But hands up if you watch the work of committees every day?

As the Liberals and the NDP discovered during the Harper years, galvanizing the public through popular opposition is a hard slog. Mulcair’s knifework in the House on the Senate scandal, or the rallies against the prorogation, all had an impact on the electorate, but it took a long time to measure it. Still, that’s partisan work at its best. For the opposition’s supporters, it was crucial to oppose Stephen Harper’s view of the country. Conservative supporters understand this better than anyone. They worked for more than a decade against the Liberal vision of Canada. They tore apart their own party, splintered it, reunited it and finally, after years of diligent, often brilliant partisan opposition work, they won the government. Opposing the Liberal sponsorship scandal, the Liberal views on crime, the economy, foreign affairs and resource development made for democracy working as it should.

At their best, partisans build parties, create movements, make changes. They are motivated to march, raise money, and show up at rallies. Tommy Douglas was just as partisan as Pierre Trudeau and Stephen Harper. They all have particular world views they fought for and hoped to transform into legislation.

At its worst, partisanship is about maintaining power, a cheap rationalization for destructive strategies that keep the public in the dark about policy. This is indefensible, but all too common. Using government funds for party messages, undermining the work of committees, attacking independent officers of Parliament, muzzling public servants, or repeating sneering little talking points: all of these may occur under the guise of partisan behaviour, but they are merely distorted political strategies in the service of power, not ideas.

In his new book What Happened to Politics, Bob Rae decries the state of our discourse. He provides an excellent analysis about how the permanent campaign and its obsessive focus on fundraising, slicing the electorate into tiny special interest groups, has undermined faith in our system. That is all true. But that is not the fault of partisan behaviour, it is the distorted use of partisan energy.

What the new Trudeau era ought to bring is a tougher, sharper, more substantial debate in the House. Toss the notes away and let the debate get fast, smart, and passionate. Let’s see ideas flayed and ripped apart. Championed and celebrated. Let’s watch our best and brightest go at it in a way that is all too uncommon: passionate disagreement without violence. That won’t stop the good work of democracy and governance. That is the good work of democracy.


In praise of partisan politicians

  1. Passionate “debate” is fine. Refusing to answer and ignoring questions or answering questions with insults such as the Harper government eg. Paul Calandra or Pierre Poilievre consistently did is totally unacceptable, makes a mockery of “Question” Period and I hope will be firmly dealt with by the Speaker in THIS Parliament. “Debate” should be a two way discussion, Mr. Solomon!

    • Esmerodo…

      If the questions being asked are meant to garner information, yes, they should be answered. if it is just a question meant to provide a 15 second sound bite…then the speaker should just ignore it. (ie. have you stopped beating your wife yet? type questions)

  2. But why did the Ottawa press Corp go so worshipful over Ambrose within hours considering her lack lustre mediocre career in cabinet? How can she push the indigenous inquiry when she backed Harper 100 per cent against it?
    Given a pass by Ottawa.

    • Rona Ambrose will remind voters time and again why they were so incredibly energised to put an end to the Harper Government. Yes, this was a combined progressive effort, but the fact is only 3 in 10 wanted anything to do with what the Conservative Party had morphed into. Likely about the same percentage of Americans who see Donald Trump as a credible reflection of what they see as President of the most powerful nation on the planet. Let her play her partisan games. In the meantime the conservatives will be failing to articulate viable policy alternatives that might allow right leaning Liberals to once again believe the ghost of Harper past should ever again have a chance at forming a government, minority or otherwise. Efforts to disparage Trudeau and his vision of responsible government prior to, and during the election, by the opposition but in particular the conservatives served only to magnify for voters what they value most in their politicians. Such will continue unless Ambrose or whomever can take a better path.

      • People must be thinking she could at least it ride for a couple of months!
        Some columnists (Ivison) seem to have gone straight from Harper apologist and excuse maker, enabler, to Trudeau attack dog.

        Credit to Wells for staying the course as a journalist who is generally sympathetic to all politicians and the problems they face, but will call one out from time to time.
        Trudeau book on the way?

  3. Evan wrote:
    “At its worst, partisanship is about maintaining power, a cheap rationalization for destructive strategies that keep the public in the dark about policy.”

    The most negative impact of extreme partisanship, is that the actual good ideas and sound suggestions by opposition parties are dismissed. The role of the official opposition has turned into that of simply being a bunch of howlers and hecklers, when instead they should be looking at Government bills and making good recommendations to make the bills better. This would even apply if a government bill is opposed by the other sides.

    If the official oppostion parties and Governments actually behaved in a sensible manner, then you wouldn’t need a senate. The opposition would be the sober second thought. If the governments were offered good ideas for improvments to their bills, and accepted them, the entire country would be better off.

    I think it was Jean Chretian who said, “If you have a good idea…it’s a good idea, and we’ll take it”

  4. “At its worst, partisanship is about maintaining power…”

    Exactly. It’s about power for power’s sake.

    Which is why it’s amazing that this line appears immediately following the paragraph that lauded Harper’s conservatives for their years of partisan insurgency against Chretien – “politics working as it should”.

    The only reason to compliment them on taking power is if power is all that matters. Otherwise obviously we need to talk about what they did in power to determine if politics was working. Since the victory was followed by vicious attack ads, massively increased propaganda spending, and a shutdown of debate in committees (where as the author acknowledges the real meat is served) it’s hard to see how this is politics “as it should be”.

    Yes, the loyal opposition is supposed to hold the government accountable; but no that does not mean launching into attack talking points before the ink is dry on his ministerial appointments to repeat your apocalyptic predictions from the campaign.

    “We want our members of Parliament to authentically represent different world views”
    Coming as this does after the end of the reign of the most controlling and secretive PM in history, I have to wonder what Solomon is on about. It’s been YEARS since I’ve seen *authentic* representation by government in the house. No one watches committees and no one watches question period either because it’s nothing but scripted grandstanding that has nothing to do with good policy or healthy debate.

    In fact by definition partisans do NOT engage in authentic debate, because they are not prepared to give any ground, make any compromise, or recognize any truth not their own. Partisans are the absolute worst in policy discussions and in government – they one want, and can only accept, their own extremist ways.

    No Mr. Solomon: vigorous debate is important to our democracy. Partisanship is not.

  5. Evan, you’re use of partisan is wrong in this context. Parliamentary debate is the proper wording for the opposition parties role in the House.
    Google search:
    Partisan meaning
    1.prejudiced in favor of a particular cause.
    “newspapers have become increasingly partisan”
    synonyms: biased, prejudiced, one-sided, discriminatory, colored, partial, interested, sectarian, factional
    “partisan attitudes”

  6. So, if politicians do their job properly of being true partisans, then we as a country can become like an NHL of many many well-managed hockey teams? And the game would be the better for that?

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