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.

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