Thursday, December 2, 2010

Follow Up to Westminister Parliaments

My foil for discussions of Canadian parliamentary stuff, Phillipe Lagassé, took my bait but had so much to say, he could not fit it into the tiny comment box.  Here is what he said in response to my post on Westminister Parliaments:

1) Liberal support isn't the largest problem; Commons votes where the Official Opposition votes with the govt are. It's those cases where the govt is able to share its responsibility with the Commons, thereby reducing overall accountability. That said, it is also problematic when the Official Opposition routinely sides with the government. When that happens, the Commons' ability to hold the government to account is reduced. As it the opposition's ability to criticize the government's policies. 

2) Odd as it may seem, it is the function of the official opposition to oppose, even if they might endorse some aspects of the government's policy. That's why they're called the "Official Opposition"! Otherwise, accountability and oversight are undermined. Opposition can come in many forms, though. It doesn't necessarily need to be a critique of the overall policy, but how it is implemented. Similarly, it can consist of offering alternatives.    

3) I would further take issue with the idea that a party can never change its mind about a policy or a mission. The Liberals could make a fair case in 2008 that the Canadian combat mission should end sooner rather than later. If memory serves, Martin did not think he was signing the CF up to an open ended combat mission where Canada could never be replaced. In fact, that's what a large portion of voters felt, too. Should they not have been allowed to say that because they accepted the initial deployment in 2005? Your answer seems to confuse military logic with political expediency. Just because it may not be the wisest military policy doesn't mean that the Liberals should not have recommended it. Otherwise, we're basically saying that military logic should trump the democratic process and the proper functioning of our government institutions. If that's the case, why not let the CF leadership decide Afghan policy instead of politicians? 

4) My larger argument is that the government has the power to make these decisions on its own, so it should. When governments make these decisions on their own, there is no doubt about who's responsible and accountable. Arguing that the official opposition has a duty to support the government in these areas because it is in the national interest sidesteps the fact that the government doesn't actually need their support and that when it gets their support accountability and oversight are lessened. 
My responses to Phil's response:

  1. Routinely sides?  Hmmn.  Not sure it is routine.  More important, how does government work in this system when the government is a minority party?  That is, if the Official Opposition must routinely vote against the government to make sure its status as opposition is intact, how can the government do anything?  Seems like the Westminister ideal of Opposition is obsolete in an era of minority government.  There are only two opposition parties that can really work with the Conservatives, so voting with the government is going to be routine for someone, right?
  2. I guess this goes to my complete befuddlement with the notion of official opposition. It would seem to me that always opposing because one has to oppose takes a lot the meaning and, indeed, accountability that comes with opposing.  If I know that Party x will always oppose the government's policies, then its acts of opposition really are performance and symbolic, and not substantive and meaningful.  Accountability and oversight, I would think, only exist when they are not simply reactive and obligatory, but vary based on how problematic the government's policies are.  The classic question, given my complete lack of understanding of Canadian history, would be: what did the Official Opposition do during World War II?  Oppose participation in the war? Criticize D-Day for giving the Canadians only one beach?  For giving the Canadians too much responsibility?  If the government actually takes the opposition's policy and adopts it, what then?  Isn't this what has happened with the training mission?  Isn't this a victory for the Liberals?  I am confused about the purpose of opposing if the act of opposing gets the government to do what the opposition wants if this is bad for accountability.
  3. Yes, parties can change their minds.  Absolutely, and the Liberals can oppose the mission as it turns south, as the requirements increase.  I am not saying that once the CF is launched that no one can alter their views.  It is just that the Liberals began to oppose the mission as soon as they were in opposition.  And there reasoning has been mostly, well, crappy.  I am not saying that the Liberals have to support that which is militarily necessary.  I just think they need to be responsible--acknowledging the realities on the ground of a mission that they started.  Complaining in 2007 that there is too much combat and Harper seems to want combat, not development, is simply a stupid argument.  Arguing that the Afghan mission has prevented Canada from deploying to Darfur or Palestine is, at best, a deceptive argument since those missions were never going to happen.  I am not saying there are not good reasons to oppose the mission.  But the problem for the Liberals is they have to oppose a policy that they initiated.  That requires them to come up with better reasons for the change of heart.  Otherwise, it is mindless opposition that should be discounted.  Why have the Liberals been a lame party the past several years?  In part because their oppositional stances have been largely without merit.
  4. The fourth point about the government and its powers is something I need to study more (as if ignorance has prevented my previous rants).  But it seems like such ideas of what the government can and cannot do in a Westminister system ignore the present reality of minority government.  The system was not built for minority parties running the government, right?  My point is not so much that the opposition has a duty to support the government when it is in the national interest but that sometimes the parties might actually prefer the same thing--that their preferences may line up.  What is one supposed to do then?

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