Friday, May 27, 2011

Canada's Conscience or a Government in Waiting?

The results of #elxn41 have given us a Conservative majority and left the NDP as the Official Opposition. A lot of the discourse of the past few weeks has been focused on what we can expect from the Conservatives, now that they have achieved their coveted majority.

But what of the NDP? In the immediate aftermath of the election, the focus - including here in the hallowed halls of A Guy Watching Politics - was on the inexperience of the NDP caucus and the pitfalls before them.

However, as the Liberals continue their retreat from our political consciousness for the time being, it is natural that our thoughts turn more deliberately towards the NDP. In doing so, it is timely to consider the role they will play as the Official Opposition.

With few exceptions (e.g. the Bloc after 1993), the Official Opposition is generally playing the role of "government in waiting." While the onus is on them to provide a credible alternative, in truth much of their time - particularly in a majority Parliament - is spent simply opposing and trying to catch the government out.

This reality contributes to the truism that oppositions don't win power, governments lose it. Opposition parties are more often than not elected because of the perceived failings of the government, or a simple desire for change.

So what of the NDP? Are they a government in waiting? The short answer is not yet.

I see them as being less like a traditional Liberal or Conservative opposition, and instead resembling something more like the Bloc or Reform after 1993. This characterization presents some interesting possibilities.

1. Putting aside the obvious differences in their national (dis)unity positions, the NDP and the Bloc are both socially progressive parties that see a role for government as an agent of change and being active in the lives of Canadians.

The Bloc knew it would never form a government, and therefore used its clout to try extract concessions from government that favoured Quebec. The NDP may come to a similar conclusion and opt to use its new found strength to do the same in the areas it has flagged as important - education, health, seniors, the environment. Their strong Quebec contingent in caucus could add further push towards a move in this direction.

In this scenario, the NDP would serve as a strong and from time to time compelling voice, but not as a government in waiting. A social conscience, if you will.

2. Another possibility for the NDP is to be a left of centre version of Reform. As long as the right was divided, Reform was never going to form the government. However, what they could do was influence. Reform understood that a sizeable percentage of Canadians favoured elements of their political agenda (or at the very least a conservative one), and were able to use this fact to influence government policy.

One could argue that the successful reduction of the deficit and the Clarity Act would not have been possible - or at least not as strongly accepted - without the presence of Reform. They helped legitimize actions taken by the government.

Reform also knew that time was on their side. Unlike the Bloc, Reform could see the potential for the bigger prize - government - in the future. Their support, while originally based in the West, was growing. At some point they knew that the right would unite and they would be well-placed when Canadians wanted change.

The question is can the NDP do the same? Will they be able to use the fact that a sizeable percentage of the electorate are less concerned about being tough on crime, and are more seized by issues like health, families and the environment to influence government policy? More importantly, will they be seen to be playing this role?

If they can, then they may start to take steps towards being seen as a government in waiting.


Obviously a key variable in all of this is the fate of the Liberals. How they fare under Mr. Rae and the leader they ultimately choose will help determine whether they can return, whether the NDP move centre and take their space, or whether a unite the left move is in the cards for Canada.

However looking at the cards on the table right now, the NDP has a choice.

They can become, for want of a better term, Canada's conscience - a party which knows it will never form a government and therefore devotes its time and energy towards pushing the government on the issues that matter most to them, extracting what they can along the way. Winning battles, but never the war.

Or, they can start the long journey towards becoming a government in waiting. Taking measured and well thought-out positions on the issues of the day. Looking to influence government policy, but also laying track to enhance their credibility and building trust among the electorate.

So readers, what will it be?


  1. I speculated at the outset that the most important job before the NDP is a duty to reform the language of Parliament. I think the NDP understands this. We see them changing the name 'Opposition Critic' to 'Shadow Minister' and we see fully 40% of the cabinet are female. In my view, these new visual and linguistic challenges for the eye and ear will characterize the tenancy of the NDP.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Karen. I agree that there is a real opportunity for the NDP to distinguish themselves through their approach to Parliamentary debate and discourse - both in terms of tone and speakers.

    One positive element of a majority Parliament is the reality that there is time. Too often over the past five years we have seen debate and tone reflect the fear/concern that an election was coming. Name, shame, and gotcha politics and hyperbole was always part of the system. However, the possibility of the election around the corner elevated these tendencies. I hope we can see things scaled back. The NDP can play an important part in this process.

  3. It's my feeling that too many conservative MPs have completely lost the trust of Canadians and are incapable of taking the stage in debate again untarnished. I hope the NDP will test their characters through bringing their past to the present unremittingly such that a true public cry of indignation over the CPC's insidious message control can be sounded.

    Tony Clement -- who caused the resignation of our Chief Statistician when he lied to parliament and the press -- should not be allowed to live that down. Rod Bruinogge -- who posited a male violence meme to silence debate while pushing for criminalization of abortion -- should be forced to face the injustice of his rhetoric once again.

    This 41st parliament is about ideological bloodshed. The NDP will lose credibility if they don't fight the corrupt personalities and records while compromising on the points that reflect true popular concensus.

  4. Thanks for the follow-up comment, Karen. While I don't disagree that the last Parliament provided numerous examples of MPs behaving badly and issues which called into question the behaviour of members, including Ministers, I am increasingly of the view that we have to turn a page.


    Despite all efforts to call out the actions and inactions so many seemed to find disagreeable if not reprehensible, the public simply became less and less engaged. Where you and I might have seen substance, many Canadians saw squabbling and gotcha politics.

    I think, as you suggested in your first comment, that the NDP has an opportunity to re-set the dial and to change the tone. In many respects, they - rather than the government - will be curiosity which draws the public's attention when the House comes back. People will want to see how they perform

    You do not often get a chance like that in politics. The NDP should take it and show people that politics can be different; that politicians can be statesmen/women.

  5. I suppose the divide between what a disengaged body politic will perceive as productive and the acts of direct participation in the forum of nation building that is the MP's province is insurmountable to a great extent. My secondary point goes to the authenticity of discourse (both written and verbal) that is the primary substance from which law and policy are crafted. In essence I am saying that the NDP must be both the conscience of Canadians and a Government in Waiting. To do less would be manipulative and the end results would only add to the damage done since 2006. It's not up to journalists or even the public to decide the path to reform. Those traversing the course must navigate it with their hearts. If we watch from the shores ...some with telescopes that capture every detail ...some from lighthouses always manned...some just glancing at a movement that seems right hopes our impressions will be made from the beauty of truth engaged with purpose. Truth is sometimes ugly but better than lies...

  6. That's a great comment, and exactly the type of feedback and perspective I was looking for. They do have to be both - but it is a question of balance. Criticism can't be overtaken by hyperbole; dignified discourse cannot sink into disinterest or a lack of passion.

    You can and should be both in opposition.


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