Responsible Government and the Loyal Opposition
Many of the subtle misinterpretations of the nature of responsible government derive from what some (and perhaps some of you, dear readers!) would consider “quibbling”, constitutional pedantry, or “debates over semantics.” I would argue, however, that these small differences matter, and the language that one uses to describe parliamentarism reveals much about his implicit understandings (and misunderstandings) of how the system operates. For instance, as I described in detail in the previous two posts, the Canadian Armed Forces and the Civil Service serve the Crown and do not “serve the people,” but to varying degrees, “attend to the public good” based on the policies and mandates determined by Cabinet. So too, the Prime Minister “governs for all of Canada” but most certainly does not “represent all Canadians.”
Survey on Why “Quebeckers See Themselves Less in the Canada of Stephen Harper”
Justin Trudeau demonstrated his total ignorance of the purpose and function of loyal opposition a few weeks ago. Now the Le Journal de Montreal ran an article called “Les deux solitudes s’eloignent: Les Québécois se reconnaissent moins dans le Canada de Stephen Harper” that promotes the same narrative: that Quebeckers “do not see themselves” in Canada in general, or in the Harper government in particular. Both analyses conflate the government with the State and try a specious distinction between policy and values in the operation of government.
First, Canada is not the property of any individual Prime Minister. This is not “Stephen Harper’s Canada”, as the headline in French asserts, simply because the Harper Ministry currently governs Canada. The Canadian federal State exists because of the Crown and the Constitution, not because of the government of the day.
Second, this article contains an inherent tautology in the assertion that “Quebeckers see themselves less in Stephen Harper’s Canada”: obviously, Quebeckers do not possess “a significant spokesman” in the Harper government: they choose to elect candidates representing the New Democratic Party, which has necessarily “confined Quebeckers to the Opposition in the House of Commons.” If Quebeckers had elected more Conservatives, then they would have received commensurately more representation in Cabinet.
When electors in any given province choose to vote overwhelmingly for a party that occupies the Opposition benches, they will in turn “not see themselves” in the government. During the 1990s, most Western Canadians “did not see themselves” in the Chretien government because they choose to elect Members of Parliament from the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance and the New Democratic Party. They made the decision to elect Members of Parliament who would most likely end up in Opposition rather than form the Government. Then in 2006, when Stephen Harper formed a Conservative Ministry, many Western Canadians found their Members of Parliament inside the Government and on the government’s side of the House. In addition, Professor Louis Massicotte laments that “the program of the Harper government ‘reflects the priorities of electors other than those in Quebec.’” Yes, obviously, Massicotte’s tautological reasoning has stumbled upon the correct conclusion. Why does the paper report on these statements as if they were profound revelations?
Conclusion: Quebeckers Do Not “See Themselves in Canada” Because the PM and Government Do Not “Represent All Canadians”
I suspect that these Quebeckers lament that they “do not see themselves” in the Harper government based on an inherent misunderstanding of the true nature of responsible government.
Namely, the Prime Minister and Cabinet “govern all of Canada”, but they most certainly do not “represent all Canadians” in the sense of “reflecting their values”, as Professor Massicotte mentioned. The Government of Canada could only “represent all Canadians” if all Canadians voted for the same political party and elected a Parliament composed entirely of one political party!
The Prime Minister and Cabinet can and does “govern all of Canada” or represent all Canadians in the sense of articulating what they consider Canada’s interest and promoting it; however, the Prime Minister and Cabinet most certainly cannot “represent all Canadians” in the sense of “reflecting their values in government.” The nationalistic phrasing of Quebeckers “not seeing themselves in the government” in this case necessarily refers to the latter concept.
In short, the Sovereign represents and is the Crown and the Country, the House of Commons as a whole represents all Canadians, and the Prime Minister and Cabinet govern for all Canadians. Within the House of Commons, the loyal opposition represents “the political minority” and makes the representation of political dissent integral to Westminster parliamentarism. Therefore, no Prime Minister could ever “represent all Canadians” unless the Prime Minister’s party won all 308 seats in the House of Commons and Canada became a one-party State.
All Canadians possess and should exercise their right to peaceful political dissent and their liberties of expression. However, no group in Canada should complain when “their values aren’t represented in the government” when they chose to elect parties that occupy the Opposition benches! “The supreme benefit of parliamentary government is that it protects political opposition, the right to dissent.” The Opposition thus fulfills an integral and vital democratic function within Westminster parliamentarism, and by complaining in such a manner, these Quebeckers featured in the newspaper article are in fact (though probably unintentionally) denigrating the necessary and proper role of loyal opposition within the system of responsible government. The views of Quebeckers are well-represented in the New Democratic Party as Official Opposition, and that’s what matters.