The House of Commons Procedure and Practice Ed 2 defines the official opposition (also know as Her Majesty’s Opposition) as “…the opposition party with the largest number of seats” in the House of Commons. The leader of this party is also conventionally styled the Leader of the Official Opposition (LOO). Every parliament since confederation has had an official opposition despite the fact that the institution itself is never once mentioned in any constitutional document. The existence of the official opposition is drawn from the preamble of the Constitution Act, 1867 which calls for a parliament “similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” And while there is no mention of the official opposition in any constitutional document, special rights and privileges are granted to the institution through the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. These special rights and privileges include the right for the leader (or another member of the official opposition) to have unlimited time during debate to respond to the prime minister and the privilege to ask the first question during Oral Questions.
Three Contributing Factors
Interestingly, while we have had an official opposition in Canada for as long as we have had a House of Commons and parliament, very little has been written or explored specifically about the institution and its role in parliament. David E. Smith in his seminal work on the opposition in Canada titled Across the Aisle: Opposition in Canadian Politics scratches the surface of the role and function of the opposition, including opposition members of third and fourth parties in the House of Commons and concludes that the institution itself is unique from parliament to parliament and its role is largely driven (1) by the current composition of the House of Commons (majority or minority government, for example), (2) the issue at hand and (3) the personalities of the leaders within the House and government.
The Role of the Official Opposition in Canada
The first and obvious role of the official opposition in the House of Commons is to hold the government to account on all measures presented within the House and advanced by the government. It does not follow however that the opposition is forced to oppose all measures of the government despite the fact that such a situation would appear to undermine an institution charged with opposition. An example of such a situation would be a minority government being sustained with the support of a third party or, in the extreme, members from the official opposition. In order to maintain a degree of value of opposition in such an instance, official opposition leaders have advocated a vote abstaining from supporting or rejecting the government (and thus continuing confidence within the House). This is exactly what happened in 2005 when Stephen Harper (at the time the LOO) changed his stance on the budget presented by the governing Liberal Party and along with the NDP and Bloc abstained his caucus from voting, effectively allowing the government to advance in confidence of the House of Commons (notably, this was the largest abstention on any piece of legislation in Canadian history). However, for the most part, these moments are few and far between and more often than not the official opposition will oppose government legislation and initiatives. The mechanism by which the official opposition can constructively oppose the government is through amendments to legislation which are often tabled shortly after the prime minister or a minister presents a new piece of legislation. Another mechanism is through the presentation of minority reports from committees which are presented by the leader or a member of the official opposition immediately after the tabling of a report from a parliamentary committee. These minority reports often capture issues which the opposition drew from the investigation surrounding a piece of government legislation or initiative and may or may not propose an alternative course of action. And of course, the most direct means of opposition toward the government at the official opposition’s disposal is voting against government motions and legislation when divisions are called.
David E. Smith asserts in Across the Aisle that the “practice of opposition in the Canadian Parliament has never conformed to the theory of opposition found in political science textbooks” (p. 101). And this statement is strikingly accurate. As mentioned earlier, what drives the role and effectiveness of an official opposition are not the laws and conventions which enable it, but the composition of the House which contains it, the issues which drive it and the personalities who lead it. The official opposition has been as colourful, if not more so, than that of the government-of-the-day since confederation.
Case Studies: Medicare and the Afghanistan Engagement
A contemporary example of the changing role of opposition in Canada can be derived in the passing of a national health insurance program in Canada, known as Medicare. In was under a minority government parliament that medicare was passed with the support of the governing Liberals under Lester B. Pearson, the official opposition under the leadership of Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker and the third party NDP under the leadership of T.C. Douglas. It was through previous legislation introduced by Diefenbaker for a national hospital insurance programme that modelled the provincial medical insurance programme introduced in Saskatchewan while Douglas was the CCF premier that was instrumental in providing the framework for a more robust federal programme. Also, the opposition found support among key government ministers, especially Paul Martin Sr. who was a long-time supporter of a national healthcare plan for Canadians. In this instance, the government was able to secure support from opposition parties in a minority government parliament and medicare was introduced. We see how the composition of the House of Commons (a minority government requiring the support of opposition parties in order to advance legislation), the issue of the day (an almost universally supported concept of a federal medical insurance programme) and the personalities (support from key government ministers) articulated the role of the opposition and enabled the creation of one of the most popular government programmes in Canadian history.
The detailed article on the official opposition in the Compendium of Procedure explains that “by law, [the leader of the official opposition] must be consulted before certain important decisions are taken by the Government” and this was made evident in the lead-up to sending Canadian soldiers to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Prime Minister Paul Martin Jr. (as he then was) sought support from the Leader of the Official Opposition Stephen Harper (as he then was) prior to sending troops into combat. The logic in gaining such support was driven by the importance of the issue at hand. The belief was that since sending Canadians into combat had been such a contentious issue in the past especially in the passage of conscription legislation during World Wars One and Two, it was important for the government to seek support from all parties in the House of Commons. Such an initiative on the face seems to go against of the role of the opposition to oppose the government, but realistically it provides the opposition parties a chance to influence federal policy. However, the question of when and how such action by the government is deemed so important as to warrant support or consolation from the opposition benches is left to the government itself and is a cause of disagreement among parties in the House of Commons themselves. This was evident in 2014 when Stephen Harper did not seek unanimous parliamentary support to authorize the use of CF-18s for airstrikes against Libya. The justification from the government was that the mission did not constitute a direct “boots-on-the-ground” campaign and thus was not important or grand enough to require all-party support. In this case study we again see how the role and effectiveness of the opposition is driven by the composition of parliament, the nature of the issue at hand and the personalities of the leaders within the House of Commons.
Smith is absolutely correct when he concludes that three main factors contribute to a changing role for the opposition in Canada. He is even more correct when he points out that no political science textbook can capture this changing role. However, despite this, there is no question that the role of the opposition is key to the democratic function of parliament. Or, as Sir Wilfred Laurier succinctly explained,
… it is indeed essential for the country that the shades of opinion which are represented on both sides of this House should be placed as far as possible on a footing of equality and that we should have a strong opposition to voice the views of those who do not think with the majority.