Opposition parties losing clout, Parliament weaker for it: experts

“You have to acknowledge that it had an enormous impact on how Canada is being governed,” Prof. Smith said. “It’s their view on how you reach agreement on a policy. It’s not necessarily [Parliamentary] consensus. I think that’s quite a fundamental change.”

Former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day, who briefly served as leader of the Official Opposition during Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government and later served in Mr. Harper’s Cabinet before his retirement from politics in 2011, rejected the suggestion that his party was responsible for undermining the opposition’s role in Parliament. Mr. Harper’s opponents continue to criticize his decision to prorogue Parliament and block the planned coalition in 2008, but Mr. Day recalled Mr. Chrétien’s own move to call an early election in 2000 in an effort to weaken the opposition.

“Here I was as a new leader, and he called a snap election when he didn’t have to because he was being wiley and crafty, as he’s known to be,” Mr. Day told The Hill Times. “I give him full points for craftiness, but just about zero for respect of opposition.”

But Don Boudria, who was known as a scrappy opposition MP before serving as Mr. Chrétien’s House leader from 1997 until 2002, charged that the 2008 prorogation set the “horrible” precedent that a Prime Minister can suspend Parliament whenever non-confidence threatens. “It’s created a precedent—I don’t know how on earth that precedent could not be used in the future,” Mr. Boudria said. “What has happened as a result of that unfortunate prorogation, is that if you don’t enjoy the confidence of the majority anymore and you’re sure you’re going to lose it, you prorogue. That’s not how the system was built.”

While he was adamant that the 2008 prorogation undermined Parliamentary democracy, Mr. Boudria rejected the suggestion that the opposition has lost relevance. The opposition’s power and how it operates in Parliament changes based on whether it exists in a minority or majority government, he said. “Whenever you have a minority, the opposition take on a greater role, but at the same time, must share a greater part of responsibility. … In a majority, the opposition, in terms of its voting numbers is less powerful, but in terms of its ability to criticize, it’s very powerful,” Mr. Boudria said. “I’m not as pessimistic about the system.”

Mr. Day also disputed the suggestion that opposition parties are less influential than they have been in the past. “Opposition plus media equals a very strong force in our democratic system,” he said. “I think the opposition is generally pretty effective at getting its message out, and generally can do it with more media support than the governing party can.”

Both former Parliamentarians’ arguments rest on the premise that Parliament is still the primary domain where Canadian politics plays out—a premise that Prof. Smith denies is the case in Across the Aisle.

Philippe Lagassé, professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, agreed that both the opposition and Parliament do not enjoy the same dominance over the political process.

“We have a constitutional reality that places the importance of the political affairs of the nation within Parliament, but the difficulty is on account of … the fact that there’s so many more opportunities now to engage in politics outside that dynamic,” Prof. Lagassé said. “I think it’s problematic when the way we view politics and understand politics is so much at odds with the formal structures that are in place to manage politics.”


© The Hill Times