Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My Problem with Westminster Parliaments

I have had a long running argument with Phillipe Lagassé in person, via email and on twitter about how Westminster Parliaments function.  I have several problems, but the basic idea is that Westminister parliaments are not supposed to oversee and that opposition parties have primary responsibility to oppose any policy.  So, the Liberals are supposed to oppose the government on Afghanistan even if they started it (which they did) and even if they criticized the government for not focusing on training until the government took up training as the priority.

The advocate of the Westminster system (played today by my unfair caricature of Phil) would say that Liberal support of the government confuses accountability since now the Conservatives can say that the policy is a product of both parties.  But isn't it confusing when a party starts a policy and then as soon as it is out of office runs away from it? 

The Liberal argument from 2006 onwards about Afghanistan (again, they were the ones that launched the three distinct deployments, including the decision to go to Kandahar) focused on three things, at least as espoused by Paul Martin when I interviewed him a couple of years ago:
  1. That the Liberal intention was for the mission to focus more on development and reconstruction.
  2. That the Liberals intended only to be there for a year and then let somebody else rotate in.
  3. That the military promised the Liberal government that there would be enough Canadian Forces left to do  other stuff, like keep peace in the Middle East or go to Darfur.
Does making such lousy arguments increase accountability?  Let me challenge each in turn:
  1.  The enemy got to vote in 2006 and killed a senior Canadian diplomat and engaged in much more violence than expected.  To say that Harper was less enthusiastic about the other parts of the effort and just wanted more combat is pretty unfair to the reality that this ended up being a very violent place.   And the intelligence failure was on the Liberal watch.
  2. The idea that forces would rotate in and out of hot zones in the middle of a counter-insurgency effort is just incredibly silly.  Continuity is key to such efforts.  In places like Bosnia, Canada rotated command but did not, as far as I can tell, disappear entirely for a rotation or two.  And, Afghanistan is not Bosnia--arguing that Canada's willingness to stick around meant that others would not be forced to replace them ignores the reality that no one else would replace the Canadians under any conditions except for more Americans.  Everyone else is committed elsewhere, caveated or both. 
  3. Yes, Hillier may have oversold the mission to Martin, but that is as much or more Martin's mistake.  But, in the counterfactual world that the Liberals might imagine having sufficient troops to peace-keep in Darfur or between the Israelis and Palestinians, would these troops be deployed?  Um, no.  There is no peace to be kept in the Middle East and the shortage of Canadians to do the peace-keeping is not the reason for the lack of a peace treaty.  And Darfur?  The real question is whether the Canadians can operate in a very hot zone without NATO/US?  And the answer to that is largely no, so no Canadians in Darfur in any substantial mission either.  Indeed, first, we would have to get the consent of the Sudanese, and they very much will not agree to a really competent force.
What is the point of examining these arguments?  Because it shows that opposing for the sake of opposing does not really produce accountability or good policy alternatives.  The Liberals are lame precisely because they are opposing something that they had initiated.  Getting themselves out of that hole is pretty damned difficult.

My real problem with this notion that the opposition must oppose is that it may be the case that there may be some consensus on what the national interest is (supporting multilateralism/working with the US might be one of them), and the requirement to oppose means that a party is actually fighting against that which it would otherwise do/support.

No wonder the Canadians are confused and the Liberal leadership has been flailing away without any traction.

Of course, this may be grossly unfair to Phil and other fans of Westminster systems.  I am sure I will hear from them/him.


Phil said...

A few clarifications:

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.

Anonymous said...

any chance you could do a mini blog on bosnia's future (or lack of...) in the EU?

Being a bosnian myself, i think it looks pretty grim. Really grim.