At the time this article was
written John Wilson was s a professor in the Political Science Department of
the University of Waterloo.
Experience has taught me that most
people regard parliamentary opposition as an enormous waste of time, a wholly
improper use of public money, and something there ought to be less of. The
government has a job to do, they say. Let it get on with it.
For such people, parliamentary
opposition is, in a word, a nuisance. But anyone who has the slightest
familiarity with the evolution of the British system of government knows that
Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is just as essential to its success as Her
Majesty's Government. The connection is obvious. If there is a case for
opposition there must also be a case for nuisances and it may therefore be
useful to discover more precisely what that case may be.
Nuisances are people who vigorously
and persistently pester and challenge those in authority. They are the people
who deliberately try to embarrass the leadership at a trade union or
shareholders meeting - or who heckle and are removed from political meetings -
or, perhaps, they are academics who quibble over what are said to be small
points. Nuisances are people who get in everybody's way, and they can be found
in every walk of life.
Some people think being a nuisance
is simply freedom of expression gone mad. But it is not just people doing and
saying what they like; it's freedom of expression directed at particular
individuals. What the nuisance does is challenge the quaint notion - so often
held not just by prime ministers and presidents, but also especially by
university professors and teachers of all kinds - the notion that such people
have a corner on knowledge, and that simple folk are expected to shut up and
listen to them. By challenging this view the nuisance forces those in authority
to hesitate just long enough to accept the possibility that they are wrong. The
peculiar characteristic of the nuisance is that he or she is not put off by a
pat on the head and a knowing smile. Nuisances cannot be accommodated - almost
bydefinition - and it is that aspect of their behaviour which is so thoroughly
offensive to those in charge. Nobody seems to be able to persuade them to move
But when we talk of responsible
democratic government, as opposed to dictatorship, we are really talking about
a political system where the government is made accountable not just to the
people every four or five years, but also to a continuing assembly of
individuals elected to represent the people. When we contemplate that way of
doing things politically it is immediately obvious that what is most important
is not the government nor its accountability, but the method by which it is
kept accountable. It is not at all difficult to move from that perception to
the idea that opposition is really more important than government - especially
in a parliamentary system - and that recognition shows us the fundamental
connection between opposition and nuisancehood.
The characteristic political
activity of a democratic society is the regular calling to account of its
leaders. That is what allows us to claim we are a developed country in
The key to understanding why
opposition is so important in parliamentary systems lies in the very nature of
the Westminster model. Perhaps the best way to describe it quickly is to
outline the structure of power which makes it work. At the bottom we have a
parliament. Conventional wisdom tells us that the British constitution is
essentially unwritten, and is for that reason very different from the American
constitution. In another sense, however, as someone once waggishly said to make
the point, there very clearly is a written British constitution. It has two
sentences: "There shall be a parliament. It can do anything it
pleases." In short, parliament is sovereign - and no less in Canada than
in the United Kingdom - except that Ottawa may not deal with things which are
in the jurisdiction of the provinial legislatures - who are similarly
But this has an immediate
consequence, which is central to the operation of the system. If it is true
that parliament can do anything it pleases then obviously governments will
depend for their political lives on the support of the House of Commons. It is
this fact - that in theory the government can be removed from office at any
time - that is the other side of the coin of parliamentary sovereignty. Cabinets
seek always to control the House of Commons - in order to stay in office for a
full term - and they have generally been able to do so in modern times because
of the development of a very rigid party system.
It is worth recognizing how this
way of doing things sets us apart from the congressional system - where the
administration is never really threatened during its four-year term. Walter
Bagehot caught the most important consequence of the difference in a famous
passage from his celebrated study of the character of the British constitution.
"Human nature despises long
arguments which come to nothing - heavy speeches which precede no motion -
abstract disquisitions which leave visible things where they were. But all men
heed great results, and a change of government is a great result. ... And
debates which have this catastrophe at the end of them - or may so have it -
are sure to be listened to... . Under a presidential government ... there are
doubtless debates in the legislature, but they are prologues without a play.
There is nothing of a catastrophe about them; you cannot turn out the
government. The prize of power is not in the gift of the legislature, and no
one cares for the legislature."
Indeed, said Bagehot, were it not for the
fact of cabinet domination of the House - through its control of patronage, the
purse strings and parliamentary business - the British way of doing things
could easily make nonsense of the very idea of responsible government. The
administration would spend he better part of its time looking for support from
the "loose fish" (as they were called in Sir John Macdonald's day)
instead of concentrating on the management of the nation's affairs.
But the development of the modern
system has revealed a new element of authority in parliamentary government. It
is no longer enough to say simply that the cabinet can usually control the
behaviour of the House of Commons. We have now reached the stage where the
prime minister - who used to be viewed as simply primus inter pares - is far
more important than other cabinet ministers.
There is no need to catalogue the
many different ways in which he or she can influence what happens at every turn
- one sees it almost every day - but some stories are better than others. I
remember being in Ottawa in 1967 and proudly marching my children into the
public gallery to show them their heritage. We had come at question time - it
was just a few days after the Israelis had launched their military strike into
the Sinai peninsula and everyone on the opposition side had questions for the
prime minister. Christopher, who was six at the time, watched these exchanges
for a while and then he said, "Daddy, what do they do, take turns?" I
said yes, that was more or less what they were doing. Then he said, quite
pensively, "Mr. Pearson gets an awful lot of turns." A child's view
of the power of the prime minister - he gets more turns than anyone else.
The result of all of this is that
if parliament may do anything it pleases, and if the cabinet - by necessity, as
we have seen - dominates parliament, and if the prime minister has absolute
control over the cabinet, we simply must have a vigorous and determined
opposition. Its job, almost by definition, will be not merely to watch what the
government proposes to do, but to harass the government with all the strength
it can muster. Why? Because only by harassment can you keep untrammelled
authority respecting its limitations - by constanty forcing it to take a
second, or even a third or fourth look at what it is doing. In that process the
characteristic component is not simply debate - because governments with
majorities do not lose debates - but a capacity to make the government fear for
its political life over the longer term. The best way to do that is to make it
look foolish. No one likes to be made to look a fool - if for no other reason
than that those who look foolish quickly lose the respect of the multitude -
and if there is a permanent possibility of their being made to look foolish
those in authority will likely be more careful. The whole thing sounds
suspiciously like the way in which we expect nuisances to behave.
The role of the opposition has
become so central to our way of doing things that we formally recognize it in a
number of different ways. The structure of the British House of Commons, and of
all legislatures copied from the Westminster model, quite literally creates the
atmosphere by seating government members on one side, facing the opposition
members on the other. This is in stark contrast to the French National Assembly
and the houses of the American Congress, where everyone sits in a semicircle.
But that is not the main point.
Our commitment to the principle of
opposition has led us to some quite intriguing arrangements. Just after the
1975 Ontario election, when the NDP became for a brief period the official
opposition in the legislature, Stephen Lewis visited the University of Waterloo
to speak to one of our first year classes. At the end of the talk a student
asked him what it was like to be Leader of the Opposition. He replied:
"Well it's much the same sort of thing, really - although you may be
interested to know that in the event of a nuclear attack on Queen's Park I get
to share the bunker with the cabinet." The opposition must be able to
carry on as well as the government.
In Canada we pay the Leader of the
Opposition a salary - over an above his parliamentary stipend - equivalent to
that of a cabinet minister. Indeed, we pay the leaders of other recognized
parties in the Commons a salary over and above their parliamentary stipend.
These practices are also testimony to the fact that opposition is just as
important as government.
But despite the formal recognition
we give to the opposition's special role, many people in authority seem not to
have made the connection between its necessity and the equal necessity of
nuisancehood. A number of years ago Mitchell Sharp, then a minister in a
Liberal minority government, had this to say about the behaviour of the
"We have slightly fewer than
half the members and, therefore, ... the attitude of the opposition is far more
important than it has ever been. ... If we were sitting there with 175 members
we could ignore the opposition and say: `Well, you know, that's just what you
expect.' But they are sitting in a position of much greater influence... and,
therefore, they should have a greater sense of responsibility(1) Tat is always
what those in authority say. "You're holding us up. Let us get on with the
job." But it is precisely the opposition's role to stop the government in
its tracks, and to delay the passage of government measures just long enough to
allow the expression of an informed public opinion. If the people are
sufficiently angry about what the government is doing they will say so - and the
government may very well back off. But if the people don't know about it they
will do nothing. And so the opposition has to fight for that time. It is,
again, exactly what nuisances do - delay.
Now all of this suggests that
although parliamentary opposition is little more than organized nuisancehood it
is nonetheless an honourable calling. It is, as Eugene Forsey is fond of
saying, rather like marriage in the Anglican prayer book: "Not by any to
be entered upon, nor taken in hand, unadvisedy, lightly, or wantonly; but
reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God."
Constructive obstruction is needed in a parliamentary system, just as it is
needed in society as a whole. Those in authority must constantly be forced to
face the music.
Well, how is it done in Ottawa, and
what can we learn from it? For the person who wants to become deeply familiar
with the vast store of unwritten rules which govern parliamentary practice just
as much as the written provisions of the Standing Orders, there is an almost
endless opportunity to find ways to be a nuisance, and yet to do so in the very
civilized terms we simply call "parliamentary."
One of the great accomplishments of
the evolution of the British way of doing things is that it has taught us how to
disagree without being disagreeable.
There are a number of specific
points in the parliamentary timetable when the opposition can easily get at the
government without having to resort to such things as walking out of the House
and refusing to turn up for a vote. In the hands of the practiced nuisance they
are dynamite. Let's take them more or less in order.
Section 21 of the Standing Orders
of the House of Commons, provides that fifteen minutes prior to the regular
Question Period will be set aside to allow any member who can catch the
Speaker's eye to make a statement - on anything he or she might wish - lasting
in each case for no longer than 60 seconds. The only limit is that members may
not use these occasions to offer congratulations to any person or any group of
persons or to any organization of any kind. The Speaker holds the stopwatch, as
it were, and anyone with any imagination at all can see that here is an
opportunity to really embarrass the government - and the beauty of it is that
the government cannot answer back.
But that is a new trick. We most
commonly see the government under attack at question time in the House of
Commons Here is where ministers are challenged every day. We often do not
recognize the virtue of our special institutions, and it may be useful if I
remind you of it in this case by an anecdote from many years ago.
Early in 1957 President Eisenhower
went to Bermuda to discuss with Harold Macmillan a number of matters of concern
to their two countries. After their meeting the British prime minister gave a
press conference where he was asked some pretty searching questions by the
assembled journalists. As the time for the session drew to an end a quite young
American reporter caught Macmillan's eye and asked: "Mr. prime
minister,now that you've had the experience what do you think of this great
American invention - the press conference?" "Why," Macmillan
said, "I think it's a very good thing; absolutely the cream of the
crop." "Well, then," said the reporter, not recognizing the
British politesse, "do you intend to introduce the practice when you
return to the United Kingdom?" "Oh, no," said Macmillan,
"we've had it for centuries. We call it question time in
Opposition members bent on being a nuisance
very quickly learn how to get around the rules the Speaker will impose on them
- that the question must be a question and that there can be no argument or
debate. Question time is an opportunity to embarrass the government - to make
it think twice about what it's going to do - and in the right hands it may even
be a chance to make some ministers look like idiots.
The device for doing this is what
is known as a parliamentary sleeper question - that is, an innocent and entirely
trivial first question followed by a devastating supplementary. In its most
common form it is seen as asking a minister if he or she has received a certain
letter, and if the answer is "no" you produce the copy sent to you as
proof that the minister is not doing his homework. But a really good - and in
factmuch more elaborate - example can be found in the debates of the Canadian
House of Commons back in 1966, mounted by none other than John Diefenbaker, one
of the most effective leaders of the opposition we have ever had. Hansard
records the following exchange on this occasion, beginning with Mr.
Diefenbaker's parliamentary sleeper. "Mr. Speaker, I would direct a
question to the Minister of Justice and ask him whether in the last few days
any order has been passed declaring a state of emergency in this country under
the provisions of the War Measures Act". Mr. Cardin replied, "Not to
my knowledge, Mr. Speaker, " and you could see him twisting in his chair
to catch the prime minister's eye, wondering what on earth the Leader of the
Opposition was up to. Then Mr. Diefenbaker produced his supplementary question.
"Well then, Mr. Speaker, if there has not, what justification is there,
and what authority is there to keep a man who has not been tried, Victor Spencer
... under perpetual surveillance? What is the authority under law that allows
the government of Canada to interfere with the rights of a citizen in that
His point was that only in very
extraordinary circumstances could the government behave this way. And he had an
impact. Within minutes the prime minister himself had promised a full
investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Spencer situation.
Part of the skill that goes with
making a nuisance of oneself is the ability to be very rude without seeming to
be. There are many examples of this in everyday life but - as you might imagine
- there are some really quite delightful ones to be found in the give and take
of parliamentary debate. Unparliamentary language is not permitted in the House
of Commons, but any trained nuisance can get around that. Winston Churchill
once managed to call a cabinet minister a liar by telling the Speaker that
"the Rt. Hon. gentleman is guilty of a terminoloical inexactitude."
Or you might want to say that "there is some doubt, Mr. Speaker, about the
maternal ancestry of the Rt. Hon. gentleman." Your effectiveness as a
nuisance is directly proportional to your ability to seem as if you are being
nice when in fact you are being lethal.
While question time is the most
prominent occasion on which opposition members can take on the government - and
with skill make real nuisances of themselves - it is no more than that. A
government with a solid majority does not have to worry about nuisancehood if
it can summon up the patience.
Nor will it have to worry about the
several other points in the parliamentary timetable when the cabinet's
performance can be attacked. The debate on the address in reply to the Speech
from the Throne, a motion to go into supply, or a budget motion - all of these
occasions are times when the government can be gotten at from the other side of
the House. But these occasions are few and far between.
In a more prominent way, there is
the opportunity for a debate on the adjournment - and not just because this
route could be followed every day. We expect the opposition to make a fuss
about budgets and the like; we don't expect disagreement over the proposition
that the House should adjourn. In whatever form - whether to allow discussion
of an urgent matter of public business or merely to permit a member to let off
steam - a debate on the motion "that this House do now adjourn" - is
clearly an attack on the government. In theory, if the government were to lose
such a vote they would no longer be in charge of the business of the house (and
might on that account be expected to resign) and therefore Governments will
generally go out of their way to avoid such an outcome.
In practice however, the debate on
the adjournment has become simply another way in which the opposition can vent
its feelings - by holding up the adjournment until it has been heard - and then
at the end ordinarily a formal divisin does not occur at all and there is
simply unanimous consent to adjourn.
In all of this activity you will notice
that there is less an attempt to bring the government down than to make it face
up to some frequently uncomfortable facts. I rather think that being a nuisance
is much the same. Nuisances do not want office. They prefer the comfort of
opposition, away from the responsibility of leadership. But there may be times
when there is no alternative to removing the government - and then the
opposition will have to move to a motion of no confidence.
In Canada there is a widely
misunderstood set of principles associated with this really quite extreme kind
of confrontation between government and opposition. None of these principles is
written down anywhere. They have been derived from literally centuries of
experience in the British parliament, and are entirely composed of merely
conventional rules. These have lately been the subject of much discussion but
for our purposes it will be enough to say that they can be reduced to two
The first is that if the government
is defeated on a direct vote of no confidence - that is, on a vote where the
motion specifically says that the House has no confidence in the government -
it must resign. The last time that happened at the federal level in Canada was
in early 1963.
Coupled with this is the equally
important rule that any other government defeat in the House does not
automatically require resignation unless the government wants to treat the
question as a matter of confidence. In most cases that will require some
interpretation - because the House may only be saying "we did not like
that item, but we do have confidence in your ability to run the country."
In all of these cases it is obviously up to the government to decide - simply
because if it was up to the opposition to make these judgments then it would
have control of the business of the House. And if that was the case it would be
There may be cases where een though
the motion is not worded in non-confidence language it is so obviously directed
in that way that it cannot be ignored - such as the Trudeau government's defeat
on the budget in 1974 or the 1979 defeat of the Clark government. Many of the
special debates I mentioned earlier might also turn out to be questions of
confidence - particularly if the government was defeated. A government that
tried to pretend that such defeats were not a matter of confidence would no
doubt look very silly, but the essential point is that only the government can
decide what the defeat really means. If it draws the wrong conclusion it is
always open to the opposition to move a direct motion of no confidence to
settle the question.
Now many people say, "Well
what kind of protection is that, when governments have majorities of the kind
Mr. Mulroney has in the Canadian House today - with 211 seats out of 282?"
The answer to that question lies in the story of what happened in the British
House of Commons in May of 1940. It is the proof that opposition can always
make the difference.
This was not the occasion of a
government defeat - although perhaps you should be the judge of that. It was
only a debate on the adjournment; but it was almost certainly the most famous
adjournment debate of all time. It began at approximately 4 o'clock on the
afternoon of May 7 and lasted until 11:30 that night (when the Speaker adjourned
the house without question put) - that is, apart from question period it was
the only business before the House on that day. It was taken up again at 4:30
p.m. the next day and again was the only business before the House apart from
the question period. It lasted until just after 11 o'clock that night when a
formal division took place.
You will surely recognize that this
was one of the darkest periods of the Second World War. The Allied
Expeditionary Force was still in France. Dunkirk was yet some time away but it
seemed very clear that Hitler's armies would be free to roam at will over
cntinental Europe, and perhaps even to invade the United Kingdom. The great
American war machine was not yet on stream - Pearl Harbour, too, was yet some
time away - and in everybody's mind was the fear that without the British Isles
as a jumping-off point there would be no possibility of getting back to the
continent if the Allied armies in France - as now seemed very likely - were
driven into the sea.
In these circumstances the
Chamberlain government faced a debate on the adjournment in the House of
Commons. The opposition's argument was, quite simply, that the government's
conduct of the war was clearly a disaster and that no case could be made for
adjourning the House at such a critical time in the nation's history. It was
one of those electric occasions of the kind Walter Bagehot imagined when he
wrote of the possible catastrophe which always lies at the end of a
parliamentary debate. Speaker after speaker castigated the government for its
failures. You could just feel the tension in the air as a packed House of
Commons tried to vent its feelings over the two days.
And it was on the first night that
what is in my judgment one of the most magnificent interventions ever heard in
a parliamentary debate occurred. Leo Amery, that wise student of the British
constitution, rose in his place on the Conservative backbenches and, after a
short but eloquent speech, pointed his finger at the prime minister and
repeated Cromwell's famous words to the Long Parliament: "You have sat too
long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done
with you. In the name of God, go."
At that time the Conservatives held
some 430 seats out of a total of 615, with the largest opposition group being
the Labour party with about 150 seats. But on the night of May 8, 1940 the
government carried the adjournment vote by only 281 votes to 200. Even allowing
for the MPs who were absent it is obvious that many Conservatives abstained,
and some clearly also voted with the opposition. In moral ters, even though it
had won the vote, the government had suffered a tremendous defeat.
The outcome shows what can be done
even when you are facing a government with an overwhelming majority. The prime
minister was so staggered by the animosity on all sides of the debate that he
decided he had to resign. But Churchill, who as First Lord of the Admiralty had
taken a great deal of the responsibility for the government's failures, saw no
reason to give up. Characteristically, as the world was to see in the coming
years, he counselled Chamberlain to carry on. "This has been a damaging
debate, but you have a good majority," he said. "Strengthen your
Government from every quarter, and let us go on until our majority deserts
us."(4) But Chamberlain could not escape what had happened in the House,
and two days later he did resign.
I have always been struck by
Churchill's account of what followed. For just while all of this was happening
Germany invaded the Low Countries. Everywhere you went in London the newspapers
had big woodcut headlines trumpeting the latest word of the turmoil in Holland
and Belgium. So nobody noticed the long black limousine on the afternoon of May
10, 1940 working its way from the Palace of Westminster along the Mall and
entering the gates of Buckingham Palace about 5:30. It carried Mr. Chamberlain.
Only a few minutes after his arrival he emerged as another long black limousine
pulled up to the Palace entrance - carrying Mr. Churchill, who stayed rather
longer. Churchill records that the King, who had a sense of humour, looked at
him quizzically for a few moments and asked "I suppose you don't know why
I have sent for you?" Adopting the King's light-hearted mood, Churchill replied,
"Sir, I simply couldn't imagine why." Whereupon the King laughed and
said, "I want to ask you to form a Government."
Now many people like to say that these kinds
of practices are ltogether too formal for the modern age, and that to follow
them in Canada is to exhibit an unnecessary dependence on the mother country.
But what have I described to you? I have simply told you how - at the war's
darkest stage - the British House of Commons was able to get rid of an
incompetent government and replace it with one more likely to do the job. In
short, I have described the parliamentary way of changing leaders. Surely you
would agree that it is better than shooting them?
That is no idle jest. How many
American presidents have been assassinated in office? How many more candidates
for the presidency? Yet from 1820 to the incident at Brighton in 1984 there had
not been an attempt on the life of a British prime minister, and in Canada
political assassination of any kind has been virtually unknown since the death
of D'Arcy McGee in 1868. Why? Because we have a better way of getting rid of
our leaders. Either the opposition brings the government down on a vote of no
confidence or, as with the British case in 1940, the assault of the nuisances
so terrorizes the government that the prime minister feels compelled to resign.
What, then, is the virtue of being
a nuisance? Well, we know, of course, that it is not generally the task of the
opposition to bring down the government, any more than it is the task of
nuisances to drive out of office whatever authority figures they are
challenging. Neither needs to go so far in order to do the job. The virtue of
being a nuisance lies in something much less dramatic. In our society - in any
society - we are surrounded by people who are much more powerful than we are.
They are wealthier than us, or stronger, or faster, or smarter, or slicker -
whatever. They all threaten the development of a genuinely egalitarian society
by the undue exercise of their powers to gain their own way. And just as there
is a built-in mechanism in a parliamentary system to deny government an easy
passage - a mechanism which thrives on nuisancehood - so in society t large we
have the capacity, if we will but learn to use it, to deny those more powerful
than ourselves an easy passage.
By doing this, by being a nuisance
who gets in the way of an easy passage; by constantly badgering those in
authority; by forcing them to answer for their stewardship - not at every
general election, but every day - we will be teaching them that they must
accept the necessity of their accountability. We will be showing them, as
Eugene Forsey so nicely put it some years ago, that "it is our Parliament,
not theirs. They are our servants, not our masters."(5) What calling could
possibly be more virtuous?
What I have tried to say here is
that an understanding of the principle of the necessity of opposition - which
lies at the heart of the successful practice of parliamentary government -
shows that in society generally we should encourage every nuisance we can find.
Indeed, we should pay homage to them, for theirs is every bit as noble a
calling as is Caesar's. They are the people in our midst who draw attention to
abuses of authority, wherever they occur. They are the little boy who insists
that the emperor has no clothes on. They are Socrates, Antigone, Gallileo,
Milton, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Thomas Jefferson, William Lyon Mackenzie, John
Stuart Mill, John Diefenbaker, Eugene Forsey and so on. It is a long and
That they make no personal gain
from their activity has never bothered them, for their ends are invariably
unselfish. Really good nuisances have a kind of messianic feeling about their
work. They see themselves as having been specially called to that purpose. And like
all those who have through the ages followed the honourable calling of
opposition, at the end of yet another day of struggle in a cause that may never
end, they can console themselves with the words Bernard Shaw gave to Joan of
Arc - another notable nuisance - at the end of his famous play: "O God
that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints?
How long, O Lord, how long?"
1. Kitchener-Waterloo Record,
September 9, 1966.
2. Globe and Mail, March 25, 1957
3. Canada, House of Commons,
Debates, January 21 1966, p. 85
4. Winston Churchill, The Gathering
Storm, London, 1948, p. 527.
5. Ibid. p. 530
6. "The Problem of Minority
Government" in Canada, Journal of Economics and Political Science, XXX
(1964) p. 6