The omnibudget versus the role of the opposition

Amidst the anticipation and reaction to the Speaker’s rulings on the amendments for the omnibus budget bill yesterday, I was struck by the tone of the rhetoric being employed across the opposition benches, and how it varied from party to party. That tone was actually pretty instructive with how each party seems to consider its role as an opposition party.

First out of the gate this morning was Marc Garneau for the Liberals, who laid out why his party was prepared to vote on marathon amendments. When asked if all of these votes were a good use of Parliament’s time, considering that we all know how they’ll end up, Garneau gave an unequivocal yes. According to him, it is an effective use because it is holding the government to account. And while sure, the Liberals have offered to support the actual budget portions if the government hives off the four other sections of the bill (environment, fisheries, OAS and EI), it was with a firm tone.

During her press conference, Elizabeth May was very matter-of-fact. If you’re going to have a bill with 700 clauses in it, then 300 amendments is the logical result. The bill itself is badly drafted, with terms in it that have no definitions, and so on. She added that she’s ensured to keep her amendments in keeping with the government’s stated goals, like one-project-one-review and established timelines, but you know, with the holes actually filled in. She also made a couple of points about parliament not being a rubber stamp, and added, “Dictatorships make (for) very quick decision-making, but we don’t live in a dictatorship. We live in a democracy.” But again, note the matter-of-fact tone and defence of the role of the opposition.

And then, post Speaker’s ruling, Nathan Cullen went out to the Foyer, and his was a tone of lament. This could all have been avoided if the government had worked with us, he decried, and the government chose this path of all of these votes, even though they tried to negotiate. You could almost hear the Greek chorus wailing in behind.

Make of this comparison in tone what you will, but it does strike me that the NDP continues to labour under this belief that as Official Opposition, they’re somehow supposed to be working together with the government, and when the government doesn’t want to play, when they don’t break out the guitars and hold hands for a round of Kumbaya, they get all saddened. But this particular belief makes me wonder if they actually understand their role. Government proposes, the opposition opposes. They’re supposed to oppose because poking holes in government plans can strengthen them, because providing an alternative is what democracy is about, and the competition created by oppositional forces will often make for better policy in the long run.

I’m not saying that this particular government isn’t being intransigent and bullying their way through parliament in a completely wrong-headed and ultimately anti-democratic manner, because let’s face it – they are. But it doesn’t serve the interests of parliamentary democracy for the NDP to continue to behave as though the government should be working with them as though politics were some kind of cooperative board game. Cullen in particular, with his leadership promises of employing collaboration to defeat Harper – despite the fact that the math didn’t work and that an electoral promise of simply ousting the current government is pretty thin policy gruel for which to form a mandate – seems to exacerbate this particular belief in politics-as-cooperative-board-game. It’s not, and it’s not the role of the Official Opposition to act as though it were.

Holding the government to account doesn’t mean trying to constantly negotiate with them and acting wounded when they don’t play ball. And while that may hold a certain appeal to segments of the NDP base, it does erode the job of accountability that they are supposed to be playing as Official Opposition, because it makes it sound more like sour grapes that the government didn’t want to play. Beyond that, it further muddies the waters about the separate roles of government and opposition within a parliamentary system, which are more important now than ever.