The opening salvos of Question Period today in the House of Commons were extremely revealing in terms of the political posturing that will undoubtedly begin as we move closer and closer to a general election. Notably absent from the House of Commons chamber during Question Period was Andrew Scheer, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. However, Lisa Raitt opened up the portion of the parliamentary day on the topic of the carbon tax:
Mr. Speaker, yesterday the Prime Minister was asked a simple question, whether Canadians can expect to pay higher fuel prices with the carbon tax. His response was a bit jarring. He said, yes, and that is what Canadians expect because that is leadership.
What the Prime Minister views as leadership is literally terrifying to widows and single moms across this country. At the very least, they deserve to know one thing. How much will the carbon tax cost them?
The Prime Minister responded to the opposition benches on point but not without reaching to the previous Conservative government (without question exactly where the Conservatives can be defined as weak on the environment):
Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives are yet again demonstrating not just their tenuous relationship with the truth, but also with the understanding that we have to take good, clean action on carbon. After 10 long years of the Harper Conservatives doing absolutely nothing on the environment, the same Conservatives show that they just do not get it.
We are putting a price on carbon pollution because it will reduce emissions and drive growth in the right direction at the same time. While Harper Conservatives believe that by making the economy and the environment work together and that somehow Canada is broken, we will continue to invest in clean technology.
Note how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau out and out calls the opposition Conservatives in this 42nd Parliament the “Harper Conservatives” despite the fact that Stephen Harper is no longer their leader. We can expect the Liberals to come out heavy linking the current caucus to the past and the fact that many front bench members are long in the tooth Conservatives from that era makes it a viable political tactic.
Lisa Raitt would not let the issue of the carbon tax go and rose again to follow-up on her first question:
Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister’s lead ministers simply do not understand that they are very much out of touch with the reality of what’s happening and the gravity of the issue that we are speaking of. I remember the days, and a lot of us do, of being able to put just five bucks in the gas tank in order to get to my work at the Dairy Queen, and there are people like that today in my riding who experience that.
This is a serious matter that is going to affect the affordability of life for many Canadians. His government knows how much it costs. Why will he not tell them?
And Prime Minister Trudeau refused to hold back in evoking the name (and apparent puppet master abilities) of Prime Minister Stephen Harper:
Mr. Speaker, we have been putting in place practical, low-cost measures to tackle climate change and drive clean growth, including pricing pollution. It is clear that the Conservatives have no intention of taking climate change seriously and have no plan to promote clean growth in Canada. This is exactly the kind of inaction we saw in 10 years under Stephen Harper, who still very much apparently controls the backbench of the Conservative Party, and these Conservatives are no different. (emphasis added)
It is important to understand and worth mentioning that the linking of Stephen Harper to the current Conservative caucus is a test balloon at this point. The Trudeau Liberals have previously labelled Andrew Scheer “Stephen Harper with a smile” and that line and sentiment will be tested now by the Liberals to determine its strength going into an election campaign. It will be key to watch the polls, in particular the approval rates of Trudeau and Scheer to understand the impact of this tactic and whether or not it will be effective enough to be featured during the next election campaign.
There was a final exchange between Lisa Raitt and the Prime Minister over the carbon tax and again Trudeau linked the current caucus to the previous Conservative government:
The Harper Conservatives still demonstrate that they do not get it. They are stuck in what they were doing for 10 years. Canadians had enough.
It was another Conservative MP, Gérard Deltell, who asked the next question to the Prime Minister, the subject remained the carbon tax:
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to repeat what I said because it is the truth and it comes from Natural Resources Canada. The Conservatives’ record from 2005 to 2015 is the following: a 2.2% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 16.9% increase in GDP.
That is the Conservative record. We lowered greenhouse gas emissions and grew the economy. We did that without the Liberal carbon tax.
Why does the Prime Minister want to impose a tax on Canadians?
The Prime Minister did not step off message once in his reply:
Mr. Speaker, if these Conservatives want to run another campaign based on how well they did during the Harper years, I urge them to do so. Canadians rejected the approach of the Harper government, which presided over the worst record of economic growth since the Great Depression, was unable to create energy jobs in new markets, and failed to provide Canadians with the future they needed. Canadians made a choice: they rejected Harper and his Conservatives.
The Trudeau Liberal logic goes something like this: the current Conservative caucus is being run by Stephen Harper behind the scenes and their leader is no different than Stephen Harper (note how note once into QP at this point has Trudeau even mentioned Andrew Scheer), Canadians rejected Stephen Harper in the last election, therefore Canadians ought to reject the current Conservative caucus.
The issue of the carbon tax presents a perfect litmus test to begin determining the posturing that will develop as the election period encroaches. For the Conservatives, the issue is their bread and butter in terms of populism (everyone gets talking about the price of gasoline), plays to the geographical base and presents an opportunity to tap back into the 905 around Toronto. For the Liberals the carbon tax is their centerpiece environmental policy that they will hold up as taking real action on climate change in Canada (which is especially important given the mixed messaging of environmental stewardship from the Liberals coming out of the pipeline debates). It is also a great avenue to attack the previous Conservative government because of their quantifiable failure to act on environmental issues. It will be particularly interesting to watch the Liberals roll out their attempt to link the current Conservative caucus to Stephen Harper, whether or not it will be effective absolutely remains to be seen.
CBC News’ Sunday Scrum review the episode in the House of Commons on 10 May 17 wherein the opposition asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the same question 18 times and he replied in kind with the same answer each time.
Oral Questions, or Question Period as it has come to be unofficially called, is by far the most routinely watched and followed segment of the parliamentary day. It is during this daily 45 minute period that Members of Parliament are permitted to put oral questions to the government of the day and Ministers of the Crown are called upon to answer. Since Confederation, the period of time reserved for oral questions has evolved and now includes formal rules outlined in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons as well as through various Speaker Rulings throughout the history of the House of Commons. In this post we are going to examine the modern nature of oral questions, their historical significance and development over time.
Historical Development of Oral Questions
When Parliament first opened following Confederation, there were actually no provisions within the Standing Orders for oral questions. The only provisions for any sort of questions from MPs toward the government came in the form of written questions. Interestingly enough, the first recorded oral question took place without any formal guidance in place on 29 Nov 1867 (a full three weeks before any rules were formally written down, actually) when an oral question was posed to the Chairman of the Printing Committee. The inspiration for an oral question period came from the British House of Commons where the Prime Minister was subjected to questioning three times a week by MPs. It became a Canadianized practice during the legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada and eventually in the United Province of Canada prior to Confederation. It was not uncommon for MPs to put forward oral questions to Ministers of the Crown for urgent matters that required an answer within a timeline tighter than that of written question requirements. It was under this sentiment that Speaker Timothy Anglin made the first of a series of historical Speaker’s Rulings on oral questions when he said in 1878:
It is customary for hon. members to ask the Government for any special information between the various calls from the Chair for the day, before Notices of Motion or the Orders of the Day. I am not aware that any hon. member has a positive right even to do that; but I think he must confine himself entirely to asking the information from the Government, and he must not proceed to descant on the conduct of the Government.
But the 1940s a period of oral questioning had become an accepted part of the parliamentary day. However, there remained no official rules or guidelines covering their use and conduct. In 1944, the House procedures committee reviewed the practice of oral questions and concluded that it was “neither possible not advisable to do away with [oral questions].” However, the report from the committee was not accepted by the House of Commons and therefore was not actioned. This did not mean that oral questions went by the wayside, simply that the practise continued with little or no formal guidance in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.
In 1964, the Speaker of the House of Commons attempted to enforce what was later viewed to be outdated rules concerning the conduct of oral questions and the formation of specific questions. This led to the formal codification of oral questions into the House of Commons Standing Orders. Thus Standing Order 37 was born which established a period of time for questions of an urgent nature to be put before the government. Under this new order, the Speaker had the power to determine that a question was not urgent enough to warrant an oral answer and could order the question sent to written questions. By 1975, a set timeframe for oral questions was established when a complete overhaul of the House of Commons routine business was conducted by the procedures committee. Since that time oral questions happen for 45 minutes each day at 2:15 pm EST Monday-Thursday and 11:15 am EST on Fridays, immediately following Statements by Members.
In 1974, Speaker Jerome established guidelines for questions during oral questions which were expanded and articulated in 1986 by Speaker Bosley. Bosley’s directions on oral questions remain the standard today for the conduct of this segment of business in the House of Commons. Speaker Bosley established four principles for the conduct of oral questions:
The time is scarce and should, therefore, be used as profitably as possible by as many as possible.
The public in large numbers do watch, and the House, recognizing that Question Period is often an intense time, should be on its best possible behaviour.
While there may be other purposes and ambitions involved in Question Period, its primary purpose must be the seeking of information from the Government and calling the Government to account for its actions.
Members should be given the greatest possible freedom in the putting of questions that is consistent with the other principles.
And adding to the ruling made by previous Speakers of the House of Commons, Bosley went on to articulate the principles, saying:
Mr. Speaker Jerome, in his statement 11 years ago, put his view with regard to the first principle of brevity so well that I would merely quote it:
“There can be no doubt that the greatest enemy of the Question Period is the Member who offends this most important principle. In putting the original question on any subject, a Member may require an explanatory remark, but there is no reason for such a preamble to exceed one, carefully drawn sentence.
“It is my proposal to ask all Hon. Members to pay close attention to this admonition and to bring them to order if they fail to do so. It bears repeating that the long preamble or long question takes an unfair share of the time, and invariably, in provoking the same kind of response, only compounds the difficulty.”
I agree with these comments and would add that such comments obviously also apply to answers by Ministers. I would also endorse Mr. Speaker Jerome’s view that supplementary questions should need no preambles; they should flow from the Minister’s response and be put in precise and direct terms without any prior statement or argument. It is the Chair’s view that it equally follows from the first principle, that time is scarce, that Members should seek to avoid merely repeating questions that have already been asked. I do not mean that other questions on the same subject should not be asked — as apparently I have been interpreted — just that subsequent questions should be other than ones already asked.
For similar reasons it has always been a fundamental rule of questioning Ministers that the subject matter of the question must fall within the collective responsibility of the Government or the individual responsibility of one of its Ministers. This is the only basis upon which Ministers can be expected to answer questions.
Beyond these few restrictions, there are a few other traditional restraints that flow from the principles above. Questions should relate to matters of some urgency and not be purely hypothetical. They should not seek a legal opinion or inquire as to what legal advice a Minister has received. They should not normally anticipate Orders of the Day. However, I hasten to add that there is normal exemption to that with regard to the budget process which I fully intend to honour. Members should be very careful with regard to questions or matters that are sub judice. Ministers should be questioned only in relation to their current portfolios and not in relation to any previously held responsibilities or Party responsibilities.
Since his ruling in 1986, Speaker Bosley remains the authority on determining the conduct of business during oral questions and has been cited by Speakers since as the foundation of our understanding of business during this segment of the parliamentary day.
The development of oral questions over time also saw the introduction of supplementary questions– or follow-up questions. Today, the standard is that one question is asked and then the member who posed the original question has up to three supplementary questions to ask. There is very little formal guidance for these supplemental questions but in 1997, Speaker Parent articulated in a ruling that supplementary questions should be related to the topic of the original question. This has become somewhat outdated with the current practice of having a different member rise to ask a supplemental question, and little formal direction has come out as of late from the Speaker’s Chair. It is not uncommon to see the Leader of the Official Opposition and the leader of each respective opposition party to take advantage of all three supplementary questions following their initial line of questioning on the government, and occasionally we see backbench members following up on their original questions.
Adjournment Proceedings or The Late Show
In 1964, the procedures committee implemented a new practice each day called Adjournment Proceedings. Essentially, it became a half hour period at the end of each day initiated by a motion to adjourn the House for the day under Standing Order 37(3). The idea was that members who were not completely satisfied with answers on a given topic would have a chance to bring up the issue one more time at the end of the day. Since that time, three topics are given notice during the day to the Speaker that will be brought up during the Adjournment Proceedings– or Late Show. These topics are typically follow up items from issues that have arisen during the day or week. Ministers of the Crown typically do not attend the Late Show, however it is not uncommon for Parliamentary Secretaries to spar and follow-up with MPs on issues that arose during oral questions earlier in the day. This proceeding coupled with question period and the odd opposition day are essential the only periods of House business that the opposition can control away from the government. They are therefore even more important in majority government situations (such as the current parliament) as they give the opposition a forum to bring issues of the day to light. Most Canadians are not aware of the connection between Oral Questions and Adjournment Proceedings and almost every major media outlet does not give the Adjournment Proceedings the same level of attention and coverage as Oral Questions.
Answers During Oral Questions
The old parliamentary adage goes that oral questions are called “question period and not answer period for a reason.” And there is a lot of truth to this statement. When answering questions a Minister of the Crown has a handful of options available to them:
answer the question;
defer their answer;
take the question as notice;
make a short explanation as to why they cannot furnish an answer at that time; or
Most of the time the Minister chooses to answer the question, or if you were to ask the opposition, they chose to speak to the question, rather than give an answer. It has come up often times throughout any discussion on oral questions that there are virtually no mechanisms available to the Speaker to ensure that questions are answered. This was put on a fantastic show during the previous session of parliament when the Parliamentary Secretary to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Paul Calandra, refused to answer a direct question from the NDP and instead spoke about issues in the middle east. The NDP was out of line for pleading for the Parliamentary Secretary to answer the question at hand, and the Speaker was left powerless to watch the House devolve into a circus as a result of Calandra’s poor answers. In the end, he apologized to the House and all was made well but not before an attempt was made by the opposition to have the Speaker rule that answers should have substance. In his ruling, Speaker Scheer outlined the guidelines handed down since 1867 and explained to the House the limits that the Speaker had in holding the government to account in answering questions to the satisfaction of the opposition. And with that statement he hit the crux of the issue on the head; by what metric would a Speaker determine that a question has been adequately answered? If the opposition is the benchmark, in other words a question if answered only when the opposition is happy with it, than we are entering into the realm of political and the debate of facts, which is not the place of the Speaker to determine but of the whole House.
There is little in the way of guidance for answers however the following three principles have arisen out of Speaker’s Rulings on the subject:
no particular Minister is compelled to answer a particular question, even if that question was directed to a particular Minister in the statement,
no MP can insist on the answer and no point of order can be raised on the grounds that a question was not answered satisfactorily
the content of answers is considered a debate about facts and thus within the realm of the entire House and not the Speaker to rule when is in order and out of order
Questions and answers in the House of Commons are subject to all other Standing Orders and Speaker’s Rulings, meaning that language must always be parliamentary in nature (cannot call someone a liar, for example) and questions must be directed to the Speaker and not individual members. Additionally, the following guidelines on what questions should not be asked have been established over time based on existing Standing Orders and past Speaker’s Rulings:
be a statement, representation, argument, or an expression of opinion;
seek an opinion, either legal or otherwise;
seek information which is secretive in its nature, such as Cabinet proceedings or advice given to the Crown by law officers;
reflect on the character or conduct of Chair Occupants, members of the House and of the Senate or members of the judiciary;
reflect on the Governor General;
refer to proceedings in the Senate;
refer to public statements by Ministers on matters not directly related to their departmental duties;
address a Minister’s former portfolio or any other presumed functions, such as party or regional political responsibilities;
be on a matter that is sub judice;
deal with the subject matter of a question of privilege previously raised, on which the Speaker reserved his decision;
make a charge by way of a preamble to a question;
be a question from a constituent;
seek information from a Minister of a purely personal nature;
request a detailed response which could be dealt with more appropriately as a written question placed on the Order Paper; or
concern internal party matters, or party or election expenses.
The inspiration of this post came from comments made by a Liberal Minister concerning questions related to the Liberal cash for access scandal currently before the government. There were significant questions on the subject during question period, and the Minister was commenting on the fact that the way she understood the guidelines, such questions were not in line (see: concern internal party matters, or party or election expenses, above). It could be argued however that the questions concerned the conduct of government, and not the Liberal party specifically.
As mentioned earlier, question period is the most watched and most engaging aspect of the parliamentary day. It’s importance within the Canadian political culture cannot be understated, however given it’s importance it is alarming how little the average Canadian knows about the conduct of question period. Opposition leaders are often measured in their capability within the job against their performance in the House of Commons, Ministers of the Crown conversely are measured in their capability through their answering and performance during question period. It is an essential element of our democracy in Canada.
Recent events within parliament surrounding bill C-14 have cast a light on the possibilities of the two houses of parliament stuck at a deadlock. In actuality, any theorizing was dubbed moot because the House of Commons rejected the proposals from the Senate on bill C-14 and the Senate duly accepted the rejection from the Lower Chamber. Democracy, as the pundit would say, was saved for the day. But there is something inherently wrong in claiming that having an Upper Chamber capable of overriding the Lower Chamber on legislative affairs is an outright offence of democracy and democratic values in Canada. It is certainly worth taking a closer look at the legislative process in Canada in comparison to the democratic process– most people, I wager, would be surprised to understand a difference between the two.
There is no question that if you are reading a blog such as this, and a post such as this, that you have a basic understanding of how laws are made within parliament in Canada. Bills are proposed as Acts of Parliament in either the House of Commons or the Senate. Some bills are “special” compared to others because they originate from the executive– or government (which resides in the House of Commons). The Senate is composed of Senators who are appointed by the Prime Minister of the day (or more technically by the Governor-General on advice from the Prime Minister of the day). Bills are read a certain number of times in each house and are sent to committee for a clause-by-clause review. Each reading stage of the legislative process (there are three in total within each house), have a specific purpose and scope of debate. At the end of the reading stages, each house puts the bill to question (that is to say they vote) and it is moved on the to next step in the process. The final step being Royal Assent, where the Governor-General signs the bill which thus becomes an Act of Parliament and the law-of-the-land. Where things get murky in the process, however, is when legislation is moved between the House of Commons to the Senate and visa-versa. Obviously, all government bills will originate in the House of Commons and be sent to the Senate for further review and eventual approval. But what happens if the Senate rejects a bill proposed by the House of Commons, and more specifically, generated by the government of the day?
Canadians saw this process unfold somewhat between the House of Commons and the Senate recently on bill C-14. The House of Commons passed the bill on Third Reading and sent it to the Senate for further review (never minding the deadline issue at this moment). The debate in the House of Commons on the bill was substantial and focused on the constitutional nature of the bill. In the Senate, the Senators heard testimony from constitutional experts that the bill would have violated Canadian law. The Senators proposed amendments similar to what was proposed by the opposition in the House of Commons in order to avoid a conflict with the Charter. Surely, however, the Senate would be out of line for proposing such amendments over the government and the House of Commons because unlike the Lower Chamber, they are unelected! This is where the debate gets sidetracked by the introduction of the democratic process. The problem is that both processes are separate from one another, and should not mix as closely as it being attempted in this sort of debate.
The democratic process in Canada serves one purpose: the composition of the House of Commons. About every four years (a maximum of five as mandated in the constitution), Canadians participate in a general federal election. Which more accurately should be called federal general elections, because in reality there are over three hundred elections happening across the country during the single general election. The purpose of these elections is to select individual Members of Parliament to serve in Ottawa on behalf of a geographical boundary drawn up based on population (and mandated representation requirements). Once the MPs are selected across the country, they are sent to Ottawa and a government is formed from among their ranks by appointment of the Governor-General. Note, that Canadians play no part in the formation of their government aside from the indirect manner of electing Members of Parliament. A key component of responsible government is that members of the cabinet, the executive body, are appointed from among a pool of elected MPs. This is exactly where the democratic process ends and the legislative process begins. Once a parliament is formed, and more specifically once the House of Commons is formed, the democratic process ends and the legislative process kicks in to full swing. From the basis of responsible government, which sustains a particular ministry through the maintenance of the confidence of the entire House of Commons, the government can participate and dominate the legislative process. This dominance is scalable based on the size of their influence within the House of Commons (the formation of majority or minority governments, for example). The continuance of responsible government permits the appointment of agents of the state such as Senators, who are empowered through the constitution to participate in the legislative process alongside the duly elected government and House of Commons. And while mandates will shift between ministries, generally those agents of state remain empowered within the legislative process, intentionally made to be immune from the democratic process. This is an essential balance between the elite and the populist, and is a key feature of any Westminster parliamentary system.
It is therefore not undemocratic for the Senate to reject any piece of legislation coming from the House of Commons, especially legislation coming from the government benches, because there is nothing that should permit the democratic process from interfering with the legislative process. While principles of democracy are inherent in the system (MPs for example vote by majority, as do Senators), the process itself, the democracy-in-Canada (to fancy a label on it), is not a part of the legislative process. That process exists when the people elect their individual Member of Parliament. The rest is the entire system working as it ought to and churning out lawful decisions of the state in a predictable and stable manner.
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.