Opposition parties losing clout, Parliament weaker for it: experts

Parliament is no longer “the indisputable centre of Canadian political life” because opposition parties have lost their dominance in criticizing the government, argues renowned constitutional scholar David E. Smith in his latest book, Across the Aisle: Opposition in Canadian Politics.

“There was a time when Parliament and Parliamentary matters mattered to the public, and the public was informed of these matters through the press.
Part of that communication concerned the opposition—the opposition was the principal participant in Parliamentary matters,” Prof. Smith, Ryerson University visiting political science professor, told The Hill Times last week. “I think that’s no longer the case.”

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In Across the Aisle, Prof. Smith argues that the opposition’s relevance within Parliament has been eroded over the years. Among the causes are the emergence of regional factions within the opposition in the 1990s, the growing influence of mass and social media in shaping political debate in Canada, and Canadians’ own changing attitudes about how democracy works.
Parliamentary opposition is now being “upstaged by modern participatory behaviour,” Prof. Smith said. “To a large degree, debate about Parliamentary matters seems to take place outside of Parliament, rather than within, and that’s possible because of the [immediacy] of the communications revolution.”

One of Prof. Smith’s more provocative claims is that the governing Conservatives have contributed to the opposition’s waning influence by “devaluing” it.

“[T]he governing party (the Conservative Party of Canada) has devalued legislative opposition, whose status was long derived by tradition from Parliament and the unwritten constitution, and has devalued it for that very reason—because it was not elected,” he writes.

Constitutionally, it’s Parliament that elects governments, but the Conservatives have promoted the notion that governing parties receive a mandate from the public by holding a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. Case in point, Prof. Smith cites Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) 2008 decision to prorogue Parliament to block a non-confidence vote that would have defeated his government and resulted in a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition government.

“As one radio advertisement opposing the scheme phrased it: [Stephane Dion] thinks he can take power without asking you, the voter. This is Canada. Power must be earned, not taken,” he wrote in Across the Aisle. “[W]hat does this mean for the status of Parliament? One consequence of the transfer of government’s legitimacy to the electorate outside Parliament, as opposed to perceiving that it is derived from the chamber, is a determination by government to appear inflexible in Parliament. Interference with the people’s will in its transmission into statute law may not be permitted.”

Prof. Smith downplayed the suggestion that the governing Tories are culpable for the demise of the opposition and Parliament in his conversation with The Hill Times.

“I would never say that if Canada’s got a problem it’s a Tory problem,” he said, although he conceded that the rise of the Reform Party and the emergence of the Conservative Party was “a revolution” in Canadian Parliament.