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
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
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achieve consensus has been replaced by a sense that in Parliament the “majority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
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
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.