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Gary Levy

Across the Aisle: Opposition in Canadian Politics by David E. Smith

Not satisfied with a Triple Crown for his previous three works on the Crown, the Senate and the House of Commons, David Smith has gone for the Grand Slam with this work on parliamentary opposition. In some ways this is his most important work partly because so little has been written about the subject but mainly because of the insight it offers not only into the murky waters of opposition and also the ongoing constitutional struggle betweem advocates of classical Westminster style responsible government and those who are more radical democrats.

A large part of the book is historical in nature and deals with classical opposition in a two party system up to 1921 and the very slight differences wrought by adding minority parties to the equation from 1921 to 1992.

But something changes following the 1993 election. Two traditional parties, the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democratic Party were decimated and two new parties emerged. The Bloc québécois formed her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition despite its dedication to the independence of Quebec. More significantly a new Reform Party promised a whole new approach to parliamentary government.

Reform presented a challenge to the principle of parliamentary democracy, none more so than its ignorance of how the system worked. For instance following the narrow federalist victory in the Quebec Referendum of 1995 Manning suggested there should be a method of impeaching Jean Chrétien in case there is a screw loose in his office (p. 85).

With the transformation of Reform into a new Conservative Party and the emergence of the NDP to the status of Official Opposition after the 2011 election one might conclude that the status quo is back.

Instead, Smith shows that the character of opposition appears to have been permanently changed. The old view that Parliament is a place to achieve consensus has been replaced by a sense that in Parliament the “majority rules” Government and Loyal Opposition are no longer partners who work together in the service of the Sovereign. Instead sovereignty is seen as resting with the people and the two teams, government and opposition; compete for a favourable nod from the new sovereign. The implications of this change are enormous and explain why western democracies have lost their way and why the mixed constitutions of south East Asia may be better equipped to survive in the long run. But that is the subject for another book.

Smith’s focus is on Canada which, like Britain, has a mixed constitution but we seem intent on following the Americans and staking everything in a blind faith in the virtues of democracy.

He points to several important differences between British and Canadian approaches to opposition. Perhaps the most important is the way the British Shadow Cabinet serves as a real government in waiting whereas the critic portfolios in Canada have little relation to who will be appointed to which ministries when the government changes. This may be one reason it takes days to do a transition in Britain and weeks or months in Canada. The proliferation of Officers of Parliament in Canada has also served to undermine parliamentary opposition.

Independence and accountability are contradictory principles, whose realization is further impeded by the triangular set of interrelationships that exist between officers, governments and the legislature. (p. 117).

The growth of independent officers may appear to be a refinement of legislative oversight but Smith agrees with those who see them as another example of American influence.

The chapter, Whither Parliamentary Opposition, deals in part with the coalition crisis of 2008-2009. On one hand he suggests that the Liberals may have been too anxious to return to power rather than accept the verdict of the electorate and work effectively as an opposition. On the other hand,

If governments are not made and unmade in the House of commons what does this mean for the status of Parliament (p.151)

The book concludes, uncharacteristically, on a pessimistic note. Smith suggests that we are embracing irreconcilable principles in our constitution. Ultimately the question is whether members of the House of Commons owe fidelity to their respective constituents or to their sovereign. It cannot be both.

Gary Levy


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 36 no 3

Last Updated: 2020-09-14